Live

Watch CBSN Live

Amazon accused of firing warehouse worker who criticized "robot"-like treatment

  • Ex-Amazon worker claims he was fired from the retailer's Staten Island warehouse for complaining about working conditions.
  • Dispute comes amid renewed focus on Amazon's labor practices and stance on unions.
  • Amazon says it already offers the kind of pay and benefits that unions are demanding.

A former employee at an Amazon warehouse in New York City claims he was illegally fired for raising concerns about working conditions at the facility. In a complaint against the retailer, Rashad Long said working at the Staten Island fulfillment center was unsafe and dehumanizing.

"They talk to you like you're a robot," he is cited as a saying in a letter from a law firm representing the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which filed the complaint on his behalf with the National Labor Relations Board.

In an emailed statement, Amazon said the allegations are false.

For Amazon, the nation's third-largest retailer after Walmart and Kroger, the dispute highlights the tension between its furious hiring around the U.S. and a renewed public focus on its labor practices. Community activists cited reports of harsh working conditions at the company, along with its perceived hostility to organized labor, in opposing Amazon's plan to build a second headquarters in New York.

The company in February abruptly withdrew plans to build the tech hub in the city's Long Island City neighborhood, but its labor issues in New York continue. The RWDSU in late 2018 started an effort to unionize the Staten Island warehouse where Long worked, with Bloomberg reporting that the union was reaching out to Amazon workers in person and through social media.

Amazon: No need for union

The RWDSU in late 2018 started an effort to unionize the Staten Island warehouse where Long worked, with Bloomberg reporting that the union was reaching out to Amazon workers in person and through social media. In a statement on Thursday, Amazon said it already offers the pay and benefits to employees that the union is asking for.

"Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees: industry-leading pay — associates at our Staten Island facility make $17-$23 an hour, comprehensive benefits, opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment (which, in Staten Island, is staffed by 100 percent full-time employees)," spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said in an email.

Long, who started working at the warehouse in October 2018, was outspoken about conditions, ranging from health and safety issues to long hours, according to a letter from a law firm representing the union. In December, he spoke at a rally in New York to call attention to the work conditions at the Staten Island warehouse and to oppose Amazon's plans to open the Long Island City center.

"All the company cares about is protecting their products, not their people," Long's December statement alleged. "After the end of a 12-hour shift on our feet all day, we have to wait on long lines at the metal detectors before we can go home."

Numerous other Amazon employees have described tough conditions in its warehouses, with one U.K. journalist calling his experiences working undercover in one of the distribution centers "shocking" and "demoralizing."

Fired for being outspoken?

Amazon fired Long in February after he picked up a product that had fallen off a robot and replaced it on the machine while in an area of the warehouse where people aren't allowed to walk, according to union's law firm. 

How tech companies are changing our cities

"Long's termination for his purported safety violation was pretext for being outspoken against the working conditions at the facility," the union's law firm alleged in the letter emailed to CBS MoneyWatch. It claimed that another employee had made the same mistake but wasn't fired.

Amazon said Long was indeed fired for a safety problem. "His employment was terminated for violating a serious safety policy,"  Lighty wrote in an email. 

The RWDSU said Long wasn't available for an interview as he's not speaking with the press until the matter is resolved.