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Amazon firings condemned as ‘obscene’ by Bernie Sanders amid news of first COVID-19-related death

Amazon firings condemned as ‘obscene’ by Bernie Sanders amid news of first COVID-19-related death
[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

Just as Amazon ramps up its mammoth hiring binge, taking on an extra 75,000 workers on top of the 100,000 new positions it filled last month, the company’s worker safety and health updates get more grim with news of its first known coronavirus-related employee death. A manager at a delivery facility in the Los Angeles area reportedly died at the end of March, though a company spokesperson declined to say whether it was definitively linked to COVID-19, telling Business Insider that the worker started experiencing flu-like symptoms 20 days after starting the job.

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And lawmakers condemned the company’s recent dismissal of two Seattle employees, who have been outspoken in criticizing its coronavirus safety protocols and environmental record, as well as a Minnesota warehouse worker who had pushed for more rigorous worker safety procedures.

“This should be a national scandal,” said Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, where one of the fired workers was employed. Amazon says it fired Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, who belonged to a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, for “repeatedly violating internal policies.” Amazon said the Minnesota employee, Bashir Mohamed, was let go as a result of “progressive disciplinary action for inappropriate language, behavior and violating social distancing guidelines.”

In addition, Democratic senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont called the firings “obscene” and Democratic senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio told Politico that “Amazon should be ashamed.”

On another front, Christian Smalls, the Amazon employee in Staten Island, New York, whose firing recently made headlines when an internal company memo disparaging him was leaked to Vice, tells Fast Company that his lawyers have been talking to the office of New York attorney general Letitia James and other government officials and will be making an announcement about his firing later this week. James has called for an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board into Smalls’s dismissal.

“The demand letter is completed. We’re just trying to finalize it, and then we’ll get it to the press,” says Smalls, who declined to comment on any legal action he might be pursuing against the company.

Smalls says he wasn’t intimidated by the leaked memo, which talked about making him the face of the anti-Amazon movement and called him “not smart or articulate.” “They put a target on my back, but they actually empowered me. By doing that, they empowered me to become a union organizer.”

Smalls added that he stands in solidarity with Cunningham and Costa. “We’re going to have to stand together—that’s what it’s going to take,” he said. He also said that he became an activist “from the moment I walked out of the building, and I’ve seen the bigger picture,” adding that he’s been in touch with Amazon warehouse workers around the world in recent weeks.

A spokesperson for Amazon emailed the following statement:

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams. Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and local health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and teams. We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on cleaning and sanitation, procuring safety supplies such as masks for employees, implementing temperature checks at our facilities, and ensuring all employees are adhering to safe distances in our buildings. Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are evaluating and making changes in real-time and encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits, and speed in which we’re managing this crisis to other retailers and major employers across the country.”

This story has been updated.

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