Amazon is coming under investigation after an alleged violation of worker safety laws related to the coronavirus. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced today that he ordered the investigation, to be overseen by the city’s human rights commissioner.
Chris Smalls was a warehouse worker for Amazon in Long Island, at a facility known as JFK8. On Monday he organized a strike, the primary complaint being the lack of protective measures being instituted for workers who continue to do their job despite the coronavirus outbreak. He was subsequently fired.
Amazon counters that it was Smalls who was violating safety protocols put in place by the company, and that he was fired after he “received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines.”
In a statement to CNBC, Amazon said that Smalls had been ordered to quarantine himself after coming into contact with a person who had tested positive for coronavirus. “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite on March 30, further putting the teams at risk,” the company said. “This is unacceptable, and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues.”
Smalls was not the only person to walk out on Monday. Organizers claim that fifty people participated. Amazon says it was only fifteen. Which number is correct is unclear, however, workers demanded that the company shut down the facility after an employee had tested positive for the virus last week.
Amazon has had workers test positive in at least six different warehouse locations, including in New York. When this has happened previously, the company did shut down the infected areas so that they could be sanitized. Amazon has previously insisted that it is “following guidelines from local officials, and [is] taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of all the employees at our sites.”
Smalls’ firing elicited immediate action from the city government. “I’ve ordered the city’s commission on human rights to investigate Amazon immediately to determine if that’s true,” said Mayor de Blasio at a Tuesday press conference. “If so, that would be a violation of our city’s human rights law and we would act on it immediately.” He added that the local sheriff’s office had already inspected the facility to see that it was following social distancing standards, and that it will “continue to inspect as needed.”
New York state’s Attorney General Letitia James also involved herself in the matter. She called Smalls’ firing “disgraceful,” and announced that the Office of the Attorney General is “considering all legal options.” This could involve calling on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to investigate the incident as well. The NLRB has yet to receive any charges relating to Amazon in New York.
Hunter DeRensis is a senior reporter for the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.