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Amazon engineer's resignation over warehouse working conditions ‘speaks volumes,’ says fired Amazon worker

Max Zahn
Reporter

Amazon (AMZN) vice president and engineer Tim Bray announced last Wednesday that he had resigned over the company’s firing of workers who’ve spoken out about coronavirus fears — among them former warehouse worker Chris Smalls, who has helped organize a series of strikes held by Amazon workers in recent weeks.

Smalls, who was fired in March on the same day he participated in a walkout, told Yahoo Finance’s “On The Move” on Monday that Bray’s willingness to step down from a senior position at the company amplifies the criticism that workers on the ground have voiced about Amazon’s failure to protect them amid the outbreak.

“Doing what he’s done at that level — the VP level — speaks volumes and corroborates what I’ve been saying all along,” Smalls says. “Hats off to him.”

Amazon has “dropped the ball on this,” adds Smalls, who worked at a facility in Staten Island. “I’m grateful that people are stepping up and having the courage to speak on the wrongdoing of the company.”

The company declined to respond to a request for comment about Bray’s resignation and letter, but previously has strongly disputed criticism of its workplace safety measures. Also, the company has previously said that it did not retaliate against Smalls but rather terminated him for violating social distancing rules after several warnings.

The resignation announcement from Bray on Monday sharply criticized the company’s firing of whistleblowers and suggested it reflects a “vein of toxicity running through the company culture.”

“I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19,” Bray wrote in a message on his personal blog that was published last Wednesday and updated on Sunday.

Continuing to work at Amazon "would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised,” Bray wrote.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01: Chris Smalls, a former Amazon employee who was fired in March after staging a small walkout over conditions, speaks during a protest of working conditions outside of an Amazon warehouse fulfillment center on May 1, 2020 in the Staten Island borough of New York City. People attending the protest are concerned about Amazon's handling of the coronavirus and are demanding more safety precautions during the pandemic. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Last year, Bray was the senior-most employee to join an open letter supporting a shareholders’ resolution calling for climate action at Amazon. The developer had worked at Amazon since 2014, according to his LinkedIn profile, and previously spent several years at Google.

Amazon fired two Seattle-based employees last month who had been outspoken about what they considered unsafe working conditions at the company’s warehouses, The Washington Post reported. A third employee, who had helped organize a virtual discussion between the company’s warehouse and tech workers, was told to stop coming to work after he gave his notice that he was quitting, The New York Times found.

On March 30, a number of warehouse employees refused to work over infection fears, and the dispute deepened when later that day the company fired Smalls. Union leaders, Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and New York Attorney General Letitia James have publicly criticized the company’s conduct toward him.

James is considering legal options to punish Amazon for the firing of Smalls, Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Keenan reported.

Amazon workers have held a series of strikes since the coronavirus outbreak forced hundreds of millions of Americans into their homes in March, spiking demand for e-commerce and delivery as Amazon and other companies posted strong sales in recent earnings reports.

Most recently, Amazon employees joined essential workers nationwide at Whole Foods, Target (TGT), Instacart, and other companies in a coordinated strike last Friday that marked International Workers Day. The workers called for workplace safety protections, paid sick leave, and a reinstatement of the company’s allowance of unlimited unpaid leave.

Amazon said the day of action included fewer than five protests nationwide at Amazon locations, involving fewer than 100 people, most of whom were not Amazon employees.

“The fact is that today the overwhelming majority of our more than 840,000 employees around the world are at work as usual continuing to support getting people in their communities the items they need during these challenging times,” Amazon Spokesperson Rachael Lighty said on Friday. “While there is tremendous media coverage of today’s protests we see no measurable impact on operations.”

The company has implemented safety measures that include efforts to take the temperature of workers before they enter U.S. facilities, provide all workers with protective masks, and give partial pay to workers who are sent home with a fever.

Smalls told Yahoo Finance Friday that he helped organize the strike over conference calls with workers at Amazon and other companies that had begun two weeks prior.

“This is life or death — that’s what we all have in common here,” Smalls said. “We put aside that our companies are competitors.”

Former Amazon warehouse worker Chris Smalls, whom the company fired on March 30 the same day he participated in a strike, appears on Yahoo Finance's "On The Move."

The company has more than 110 fulfillment centers in North America, according to its website. The warehouse in Staten Island is one of the company’s largest urban facilities, the Verge reported last year. The facility is 855,000 square feet and has 4,500 workers.

On Thursday, Amazon reported revenue of $75.5 billion, a leap of 26% over the same three-month period last year that’s likely attributable to the reliance on e-commerce as many Americans have stayed in their homes. Amazon announced in March that it would hire 100,000 workers to meet the increased demand, and in April said it would add 75,000 more.

Worker demonstrations at the major brands began on March 30, when Instacart workers nationwide refused to fulfill orders and Amazon warehouse workers at a facility in Staten Island walked off the job. The next day, workers at Whole Foods held a sickout, demanding protective equipment and other safety measures. Late last month, on April 21, Amazon warehouse workers staged their largest refusal to work.

Speaking with “On The Move” on Monday, Smalls said that he remains in weekly contact with other Amazon workers who’ve lost their jobs after raising coronavirus fears.

“We’re sort of like a family,” he says. “This should never have happened the way that it did.”

Correction: The original version of this story falsely stated that Bray had announced his resignation on Monday. In fact, the resignation was announced in a message on his personal blog that was published last Wednesday and updated on Sunday.

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