Amazon employee who advocated for warehouse workers says she was fired in "a 30-second phone call"

Fired employees say Amazon "silenced" them
Fired employees say Amazon "silenced" them 06:09

Two former Amazon employees said they were fired for their activism on behalf of the company's warehouse workers. Maren Costa had worked at the e-commerce giant for 15 years and helped design everything from the homepage to physical stores. She and fellow designer Emily Cunningham said they were calling attention to working conditions in the warehouses amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"Amazon's greatest fear is workers coming together, workers organizing, workers talking to each other and workers speaking up together. That's why Emily and I were fired," Costa told "CBS This Morning" co-host Tony Dokoupil. 

Asked if she felt like they were silenced, Costa said, "Absolutely. We were absolutely silenced."

The coronavirus has killed at least four Amazon warehouse employees and infected others, fueling protests at the company's facilities across the country.

"Warehouse workers reached out to us ... because of how unsafe they felt in warehouses and how afraid they felt not only for their own health, but for their families and for the larger public as well," Cunningham said. 

Costa said warehouse employees told her the reality in the warehouses contrasted what Amazon was saying. 

"Amazon's internal message to all of the ... frontline workers, the warehouse workers, they are 'heroes,' and we're doing everything we can, ... and everything is just going swimmingly well," Costa said. "It wasn't going swimmingly for them at all."

Costa and Cunningham said the pandemic has exposed how Amazon treats its warehouse workers differently than it treats tech workers, especially those on the company's main campus.

"When we found one case of COVID on the entire campus, ... the campus was shut down and everybody was sent home," Costa said. "When warehouse workers stay home for fear of the coronavirus, they just send more bodies in."

After the coronavirus hit, Costa and Cunningham circulated a petition to improve the lives of warehouse workers, asking for increased hazard pay and additional safety procedures.

"I say listen to your workers. Listen to what they're saying," Cunningham said.

Back in 2018, Costa and Cunningham had helped create the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, and they said Amazon warned them against publicly criticizing the company.

But it still surprised them when on April 10, after their group invited colleagues to a talk about warehouse worker safety, they got a call from management.

"I got an invite from my director at 2:45 for a 3:00 meeting, and I thought that was unusual," Cunningham said. "But at that time, about 3:00 I noticed I didn't have access to the network anymore, … and then about an hour later, I got a call from an HR representative who basically told me that I had violated multiple policies ... and that I was terminated effective immediately."

Costa and Cunningham said they were told they'd violated internal policies, among them, one that prohibits soliciting donations from fellow employees.

Costa said she was fired during a video call while her son was in the adjoining room.

"He just happened to hear the whole thing," she said. "I took the call, and it was very brief. You know, my 15 years at Amazon was ended in about a 30-second, literally a 30-second phone call."

Last week, nine U.S. senators wrote a letter to Amazon, raising the question of "retaliation for whistleblowing," specifically naming Costa and Cunningham.   

On 60 Minutes Sunday, Amazon Head of Operations Dave Clark said that the company does not strike back at its own employees.

"I can tell you we have a zero-tolerance policy for retaliating against people or for any number of issues. I've been here 21 years and I've never seen anybody fired for complaining or raising a concern," Clark said. 

Asked how they would respond to someone who says they broke their company's trust, Cunningham said, "We know the importance of pilots being able to speak up of Boeing engineers, of nurses speaking up on behalf of their patients. ... And if workers are not able to speak up, it's a disaster not only for those workers or their patients or customers, but for the larger public as well."

Amazon declined "CBS This Morning's" request for an interview. In a statement, the company said, "We terminated these employees not for talking publicly about working conditions or safety, but for repeatedly violating internal policies."

Amazon said it is now spending $800 million on safety measures, and the company identifies workers who came in contact with a sick colleague and sends them into quarantine with pay.