Amazon claims it fired Chris Smalls, a management associate, in March for violating safety procedures by continuing to come to work after having been exposed to COVID-19, despite the fact that the company says it offered to pay him to stay home for 14 days after the exposure. Smalls, who is suing his former employer in the Eastern District of New York for discrimination and retaliation, tells a different story.
According to Smalls, Amazon failed to take several safety precautions related to the pandemic, including taking employees’ temperatures before allowing them on the premises; providing hand sanitizer or personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves; enforcing social distancing; or making sure the facility was properly cleaned and sanitized between shifts.
In the complaint, Smalls said he felt a responsibility to bring his concerns to management. He alleges management did not care about the health or welfare of the employees working under him because they were largely Black, Latino, and/or immigrants whose recent entry into the country made them unlikely to speak up on their own behalf. When Smalls again met with Amazon management, this time with a group of workers that included white employees, he alleges management was significantly more receptive to their complaints.
Smalls points out that he was fired within hours of organizing a protest with the aim of getting Amazon to properly clean and sanitize a facility at which an employee had tested positive for COVID-19. Contrary to Amazon’s assertion that he was fired for breaking quarantine and violating social distancing guidelines, Smalls alleges it was in retaliation for the fact that he was raising concerns about the way the company was allegedly putting its workers of color at risk.
The complaint also pointed to a memo between Dave Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, and Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, in which Zapolsky claimed Smalls was neither articulate nor intelligent, and that the company should make him the face of workers who were critical of the way the company was responding to the pandemic. The lawsuit alleges the memo, which was leaked to the online news outlet, Vice, demonstrates Amazon’s attempt to smear Smalls’s reputation.
Amazon denies the allegation that Smalls’s termination, or their response to COVID-19, were motivated in any way by race. Instead, they insist it was Smalls who refused to follow safety guidelines, and that the company works to promote diversity and inclusion, and it has invested millions of dollars to ensure the safety of their workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawsuit points to the fact that this pandemic has hit communities of color harder than predominantly white communities, and it is pursuing unspecified damages for Black and Latino workers who were employed at the same facility where Smalls worked.
Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., who is also the head of Operation Rainbow PUSH, immediately came out in support of Smalls in the lawsuit, referencing the fact that communities of color have been hit especially hard by this pandemic, and the discrimination Smalls is alleging is the kind of thing Jackson has dedicated his life to fighting.
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