News & Politics

Fired Amazon Employee Returned to Work to Organize Strike After Being Ordered to Quarantine

Facebook video screenshot

The Amazon employee who helped lead a strike in New York on Monday had previously been in close contact with a man who tested positive for the coronavirus. Amazon ordered him to enter quarantine for 14 days with pay, but he left quarantine to lead the strike, potentially exposing workers. After Amazon fired him, he claimed the termination was unlawful and New York’s attorney general also condemned the move.

Ironically, Christian Smalls had helped organize the strike in part to demand more sanitary conditions to help prevent employees from contracting the coronavirus. Despite the fact that Smalls could well have been the walking risk to the entire warehouse’s safety, he went back to work — in violation of guidelines from his employer and the CDC — to organize a strike, right when Americans are more reliant than ever before on e-commerce and home delivery.

The Monday protest saw more than a dozen people walk off the job around lunchtime, according to Amazon and a live stream of the event, CNN reported.

Smalls told CNN he had spent the past week trying to persuade senior warehouse officials to close the building to sterilize it, but they refused.

Amazon fired Smalls on Monday night.

“Mr. Smalls was found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world,” Amazon spokesperson Kristen Kish told CNN. “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite today, March 30, putting the teams at risk.”

That seems an open-and-shut case: Smalls refused a direct order intended to keep other employees safe during this pandemic. Yet the disgruntled former employee claimed he was singled out for punishment.

“Everybody’s been warning me that [this] might happen, so I kinda expected it,” Smalls told CNN. “But for them to do it this way, and for the reasoning behind it, that tells you right there that they, number one, don’t care about people, and number two, it’s just a target, a straight up target.” Smalls said he intended to visit City Hall to persuade government officials to intervene.

Attorney General Letitia James (D-N.Y.) sided with the employee who risked infecting his fellow Amazon employees.

“It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues,” James said in a statement. “At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from COVID-19. Today, Chris Smalls was fired. In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited.”

Yet Amazon’s action is not retaliatory. Smalls violated a direct order and CDC guidance, putting the lives of his fellow employees at risk. In fact, his decision to lead the strike puts the lie to the notion that his strike was about protecting the safety of Amazon workers. If he were truly focused on protecting his coworkers from the pandemic, he would have stayed at home in quarantine and let others lead the strike. The strike also did not comply with social distancing guidelines, as evidenced by this video.

Workers at Amazon's JFK8 Fulfillment Center are going on strike due to the company's failure to keep them safe during the pandemic.

Posted by Make the Road New York on Monday, March 30, 2020

New York can ill afford such dangerous antics. More than 66,000 people have tested positive in the state and more than 1,000 have died from COVID-19.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.