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Amazon fires worker who organized Staten Island warehouse walkout

Amazon and Instacart workers walking off job
Amazon and Instacart workers walking off job amid safety concerns over coronavirus 01:50

An Amazon warehouse assistant manager who organized a walkout from the company's Staten Island, New York, facility has been fired, prompting an outcry from New York City's mayor and the state's attorney general.

Chris Smalls lost his job on Monday after helping lead a protest over what some workers claim is the company's lack of precautions against the coronavirus.

Amazon has confirmed one positive case of COVID-19 at the facility. At Monday's walkout, workers claimed there were 10 cases, and chanted "Shut it down!" in a call for the building to be closed and sanitized. Workers allege they lacked face masks and that cleaning supplies needed to clean the building were scarce.

Less than two hours after the protest, Smalls got a phone call telling him he was fired.

"It was a targeted retaliation," Smalls told CBS MoneyWatch.

Amazon said in a statement that Smalls was fired for "multiple safety issues."

"Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk," the company statement said. "He was also 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 added, "Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite today, March 30, further putting the teams at risk. This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues."

Amazon also disputed the number of participants in Monday's walkout, which organizers claim had about 50 participants. However, videos of the protest show about two dozen people gathered outside the warehouse. An Amazon spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch that 15 people participated, and claimed that only nine of them were actually employed by the company.

"Life or death"

Smalls, who has worked for Amazon for five years, alleges he's being silenced. According to him and other workers who are agitating for better conditions, workers have been showing up sick to the warehouse for days because only those who present a diagnosis of COVID-19 are eligible for paid sick leave.

An Amazon spokesperson said the company has recently changed its policies to require anyone feeling unwell to stay at home. The company started doing body-temperature checks at the Staten Island facility on Sunday and plans to expand the practice to other sites, the spokesperson said.

Last Tuesday, Smalls sent home a worker who was ill, he told CBS MoneyWatch. That person later tested positive for COVID-19, he said.

"There are a number of cases that are undisclosed," he said. "It's scary working for [Amazon] right now; it's life or death."

Smalls claims Amazon placed him on quarantine as retaliation, saying that many other workers who had come in contact with the ill person were not quarantined.

Smalls and other workers, some of whom are active with labor and social justice groups like Make the Road and New York Communities for Change, are calling for Amazon to provide paid sick leave for everyone, regardless of a COVID-19 diagnosis.

Elected officials took notice of the firing, with New York Attorney General Letitia James calling Smalls' firing "disgraceful," and saying she was "considering all legal options."

The law protects workers' rights to act collectively, which includes strikes and walkouts, without fear of retaliation.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he had "ordered the city's Commission on Human Rights to investigate Amazon immediately" to determine if the firing was retaliatory.

"The allegation is because he spoke up for the safety of his fellow workers, he was fired," de Blasio said. "If so, that would be a violation  of our city human rights law."

Smalls said he plans to take the protest to New York City Hall in coming days.

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