Amazon workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse strike in demand that the facility be shut down and cleaned after one staffer tested positive for the coronavirus on March 30, 2020 in New York.
Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images
The New York attorney general’s office has interviewed Amazon workers from a handful of facilities in the state, as claims of employee retaliation become a central focus of its investigation into the company’s labor practices, according to people familiar with the matter.
New York Attorney General Letitia James sent a letter to Amazon in April saying it was looking into whether the company violated federal employment law or broke the state’s whistleblower laws when it fired a worker who organized a strike at its Staten Island facility. The worker, Chris Smalls, led a protest calling for Amazon to close the warehouse and put in place greater safety protections, echoing warehouse workers’ concerns across the country.
The letter calls on Amazon to reinstate Smalls and asks it to turn over all internal communications dating back to Feb. 1 related to workers’ complaints, protests and efforts to organize.
In late March, James’ office began contacting Amazon workers from New York area warehouses. So far, it has spoken to workers from facilities in Staten Island, Queens and Bethpage, and is adding more facilities to its roster as it receives complaints, the people said.
The conversations have touched on Amazon’s safety practices during the coronavirus pandemic, including enforcement of social distancing rules, workers’ access to personal protective equipment and its documentation of positive coronavirus cases at facilities. By collecting this information, the office is looking to build a case of Amazon’s retaliatory practices against workers who spoke out about warehouse conditions, according to some of the people familiar with the matter.
The New York attorney general’s office declined to comment. Amazon did not respond to questions about the office’s investigation, but cited measures it has taken to protect workers’ health and safety, including temperature checks, testing, gloves, masks and extended pay and benefits. Amazon said it has always followed the guidance of public health agencies.
“We are saddened by the tragic impact COVID-19 has had on communities across the globe, including on some Amazon team members and their family and friends,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.
Amazon has fired at least six employees and written up four workers who were outspoken critics of the company’s labor practices or participated in protests. The company has previously disputed claims that it fired workers for speaking out, saying they were fired for violating internal policies.
James’ office has reached out to Amazon to substantiate some of the complaints it has received from workers. Up until recently, Amazon was not cooperating with the office’s requests for information, people familiar with the investigation said.
Other groups keep the pressure on
Other groups are also pressuring Amazon to release information about its New York facilities. Last week, three JFK8 workers filed a lawsuit against the company that said it made the Staten Island facility “a place of danger” by impeding efforts to stop the spread of the virus and prioritizing productivity over safety. Frank Kearl, a staff attorney with Make the Road New York, which joined several labor advocacy groups in filing the lawsuit on behalf of workers, said he wasn’t surprised Amazon hasn’t fully cooperated with the office’s investigation.
“Amazon’s entire system is built upon an iron fist of control over everything,” Kearl said. “They use that imbalance of information to their advantage when it comes to workers.”
Workers say they’ve been retaliated against for pushing for better safety protections at their facilities. Several employees allege they received written warnings after they participated in protests or confronted management with their concerns and filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Employees at Amazon’s Queens facility, one of the sites being investigated by James’ office, filed an NLRB complaint May 6 alleging the company retaliated against workers who attempted to organize. Amazon workers in Chicago, Pennsylvania, California, Indiana and Florida have also filed NLRB complaints accusing the company of similar tactics.
Smalls, the JFK8 worker, filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Health on March 21 that said employees were being put in danger as a result of insufficient cleaning and lax social distancing enforcement, among other things. He said he hopes James’ investigation results in the reinstatement of workers who were fired or disciplined for raising concerns.
“Amazon needs to be held accountable,” Smalls said. “We tried to do that and it didn’t happen. They didn’t protect us in the beginning of this pandemic.”