New York State Attorney General Letitia James told Yahoo Finance on Tuesday that her office is “considering their legal options” against Amazon (AMZN) over its decision to fire a warehouse manager who led a walkout over coronavirus protections.
“It's really unfortunate that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues,” James told Yahoo Finance’s “On The Move” on Tuesday, the same day New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city was investigating the firing.
“My office is considering their legal options and we are also calling upon the National Labor Relations Board to investigate, to stand up for employees who wanted to organize and to stand against an employer, management, who basically wanted to seek retaliation,” she added.
Smalls reportedly organized the event to raise awareness that Amazon’s workers and cleaning crews lacked adequate personal protective equipment, and were forced early on during the COVID-19 outbreak to choose between unpaid sick leave and putting their colleagues at risk. The workers demanded a temporary closure of the facility so it could be cleaned while workers received full pay, as Yahoo Finance’s Max Zahn reported on Monday.
‘Multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines’
For its part, Amazon says Smalls violated social distancing guidelines and a 14-day quarantine, after he showed up to protest, during which time he was on paid-leave because he had been in close contact with the employee in his department who tested COVID-19 positive.
In a statement, Amazon said, “Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk. 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. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite...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.”
The company went on to say it had taken steps to create a safe workplace, including required temperature checks for all people entering its facility, tripling its deep cleanings of the warehouse and procuring available safety supplies. In addition, Amazon raised workers’ pay by $2 per hour and offered double overtime.
Amazon did not reply to a request from Yahoo Finance asking where Smalls was located when he purportedly violated social distancing guidelines, or whether it had reconsidered its decision to terminate him.
A paid leave option for sick, undiagnosed Amazon workers, was not always available. James said prior to the action that was taken by employees at Amazon’s Staten Island facility, an employee at the facility who tested positive was not permitted sick leave.
“In fact, she had to take off with unpaid sick leave to get tested,” James said. “She tested positive and as a result of her diagnosis that when a number of individuals decided to protest the lack of protective measures for workers.”
In New York state, workers are protected by law from employer retaliation in response to attempts to organize and efforts to protest. Whistleblower protections are also in place that permit workers to notify authorities of hazardous working environment concerns.
Amazon’s headwinds continue Tuesday as workers employed by its subsidiary Whole Foods are demanding they too be provided with personal protective equipment. The workers, some of whom are represented by the grassroots group, Whole Worker, which is calling on workers to collectively call in sick, are also asking for increased wages to compensate them for their increased risk of contracting the virus.
In addition to fielding concerns over worker health protections, James said her office is busy handling questions from employers and employees wanting to know if they qualify as “essential” services that must remain open under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order that all nonessential workers stay home. The office is also dealing with concerns over price gouging and products marketed with unsubstantiated claims to treat coronavirus.
Resources for filing a complaint with the New York Attorney General’s Office can be found here.
Alexis Keenan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance and former litigation attorney.
Follow Alexis Keenan on Twitter @alexiskweed.