The NLRB Is Looking Into Claims That Amazon Violated Employees' Rights During The Coronavirus Pandemic

As employees, labor activists, and lawmakers decry Amazon’s firing of employees involved in labor protests, the National Labor Relations Board is looking at the company’s record of targeting people over social distancing violations

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Federal labor regulators have indicated they will be watching Amazon after workers in Chicago filed charges against the company alleging it retaliated against them for participating in protests about working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic, according to public documents filed this week.

The labor board’s inquiry, which experts say is unusual, comes as Amazon is under national scrutiny for firing at least four employees who engaged in walkouts and work slowdowns to protest worker safety during the pandemic.

Employees in Chicago allege that instead of responding to their petition asking for the closure of their warehouse after two workers tested positive for the coronavirus, Amazon instead retaliated against them. The company, they charged, is going after labor leaders on the pretext that they violated new social distancing rules. Workers in other places, including New York and Minnesota, have accused the company of similar tactics in recent weeks.

“They’re just trying to pressure us and intimidate us so that we don’t try to do this type of activity again."

“They’re just trying to pressure us and intimidate us so that we don’t try to do this type of activity again,” said Samir Quasir, an Amazon employee in Chicago who filed a charge with labor regulators this week alleging that the company retaliated against him after he participated in two protests and one walkout earlier this month. His bosses, he said, alleged that he had violated 6 feet of social distancing, a rule he said he may have inadvertently violated, but that Amazon selectively enforces. “There’s a pattern here,” he said. “I do feel targeted.”

Regarding these claims, a spokesperson for Amazon declined to comment on individual employees, but said it “respect[s] the rights of employees to protest and recognize their legal right to do so; however, these rights do not provide blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, well-being or safety of their colleagues.”

The workers’ allegations are part of an effort on behalf of workers in Amazon facilities across the country to push the country’s largest online retailer to offer higher wages and better working conditions. Amazon has previously settled at least one charge with the labor board, and dozens of other complaints have been withdrawn by workers or dismissed by the board in the last decade.

In Chicago, the effort is being led by a group called DCH1 Amazonians United, one of whose members, Ted Miin, filed a charge February alleging that his manager had singled him out for distributing pamphlets about workers rights. Such distribution is protected under federal laws that protect employees’ right to discuss working conditions.

On Thursday, the labor board’s regional director in Chicago announced in a written response that an Amazon manager had unlawfully interrogated Miin about his workplace organizing, but declined to punish Amazon because the incident was “isolated in nature” and “because there have not been any meritorious charges against the Employer within the past several years.”

However, the regional director also said that he would consider levying punishments “If a meritorious charge involving other unfair labor practices is filed against” Amazon within the next six months.

Workers in Chicago are flooding the board with similar complaints. Already this week, three employees in Chicago have filed additional allegations of retaliation against Amazon with the National Labor Relations Board.

Among them is one from Quasir, who said he was called into a meeting with HR after participating in walkouts demanding improved coronavirus protections. Quasir said he was asked to sign a written statement about the walkouts, which Quasir said he feared could be used against him. After he refused, Amazon gave him a “final written warning” for allegedly violating 6-foot social distancing rules meant to protect employees from infection.

“Usually you get a verbal warning, and then a couple written warnings, and then a final written warning, and then they can terminate you after that. But I never got a verbal warning,” Quasir told BuzzFeed News. “[It was] straight to a final written warning.”

A second employee who requested anonymity out of fear of further retaliation said she was written up for entering the Amazon delivery station where she works without a badge when she and other protesters were delivering a petition to Amazon management during one of the walkouts.

A third employee also filed a charge of retaliation this week. The labor board is in the process of investigating those charges, and two additional employees are planning to file new charges soon, sources told BuzzFeed News.

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Wilma Liebman, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board, said the decision in Chicago is an unusual one, and a sign that the regional director there is “leaving the door open that if there’s more conduct that occurs, that he would add this one in to other events to allege as unlawful.”

“To a certain extent, he’s invited them to file more charges,” Liebman said.

The Amazon employee terminations could be taken into account in the eventuality of a hearing before a labor board judge, Liebman said, but the board ultimately has little power to actually punish a company of Amazon’s size should its behavior be determined to be unlawful. “All they can do is get a slap on the hand,” she said.

As people on lockdown across the country turn to Amazon for household supplies and food while avoiding brick-and-mortar stores, Amazon's sales have skyrocketed. But employees say the company hasn’t done enough to protect them from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. As lawmakers and labor groups have called for Amazon to take better care of its employees, the company has scrambled to implement safety procedures including temperature checks and the distribution of face masks, and is experimenting with disinfectant fogging and even creating its own COVID-19 test.

On Friday Amazon Senior Vice President of Global Affairs Jay Carney told CNN that he doesn’t know how many Amazon employees have tested positive for COVID-19. But the Athena Coalition, an alliance of organizations focused on Amazon, claims employees at more than 75 Amazon facilities so far have tested positive for COVID-19. Amazon has declined to shutter the vast majority of these facilities for disinfection, and employees in New York, Chicago, and Michigan organized protests and walkouts in opposition to that decision.

At the end of March, Amazon fired Chris Smalls, a New York–based employee who the company said terminated for entering an Amazon facility in violation of company orders to self-quarantine. Last week, the company fired Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, two Seattle-based corporate employees and organizers of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group who had spoken out in support of warehouse workers demanding better protections from Amazon. And an Amazon employee and workplace organizer in Minnesota, Bashir Mohamed, told BuzzFeed News on Monday that he’d been fired by Amazon after collecting signatures on a petition related to the coronavirus. Amazon said at the time that it respects workers' rights to voice their concerns and that all three of those employees were fired for violating company policies.

Though no Amazon employees in Chicago have been fired, members of DCH1 Amazonians United say they see a connection between the terminations at other facilities and the targeting and retaliation they’re experiencing following the four walkouts they held, one of which was captured on video and involved a caravan of community members whose cars temporarily shut down the delivery station and ultimately were dispersed by police.

“Management has been harassing and targeting individual DCH1 workers who participated in the four protest actions,” the group said in a petition published Friday evening. “They are violating our rights, and are trying to intimidate us and bully us into submission.” The group is demanding Amazon clear the involved employees' records and reinstate fired workers in other states.

DCH1 Amazonians United credits its protests and petitions for what it says are somewhat improved safety conditions at Amazon: Workers said they’re now provided with masks, their temperatures are checked before they start work, and while the building still hasn’t been closed for cleaning, the housekeeping crew has increased their efforts.

But they also said it’s difficult to adhere to 6-foot social distancing rules while rushing to move packages as fast as Amazon expects them to, and workers who participated in the walkouts say those rules are being enforced selectively to target them.

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