Company Risked Workers’ Lives While Raking in Super Profits
By Francisco Picado
DENVER, CO, June 7, 2021—On May 6, Amazon worker Linda Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment for Amazon’s “systematic failure to comply with even the most basic safety precautions necessary to protect her and her co-workers from exposure to the [Covid-19] virus” at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. “Amazon just wanted to pressure people to keep coming to work during the pandemic, even though we were terrified, and they didn’t tell us whether we’d been exposed and didn’t even explain to my Spanish-speaking co-workers…that they shouldn’t come to work if they were sick.”
Rodriguez, 59, was hired in 2019 at Amazon’s massive 855,000-square-foot robotic warehouse, called DEN3 Fulfillment Center. The facility in Thornton, CO, some 16 miles north of downtown Denver, opened in 2018 and employs more than 1,500 people. Like Rodriguez, other workers have been fighting to protect themselves during the pandemic by engaging in “safety strikes” and other actions on the job, registering complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), or filling lawsuits.
Rodriguez first complained about Amazon’s contact tracing program. She said the company failed to notify her that she had been exposed to the virus when a coworker tested positive after being sent home sick on June 2, 2020. Rodriguez and other workers only learned of the danger when the worker, who fell quite ill, texted coworkers that she had tested positive for COVID-19. “Amazon,” Rodriguez’s complaint asserts, “was simultaneously working to create the illusion of diligent compliance with safety requirements,” while claiming a “cutting-edge contact tracing program.”
The complaint notes that Amazon admitted some 20,000 employees had tested positive for Covid-19, but it characterizes the contact tracing program as “an ineffective sham.” At the same time, Amazon was profiting from the sale of its contact tracing methods to other employers. Politico Magazine reported on May 11, 2020, that Amazon had been hired to build the state of California’s Covid-19 “data management system for contact tracing,” along with business partners Accenture and Salesforce.
‘A climate of fear’
Also in May 2020, Tim Bray, an Amazon vice-president, resigned in protest, over Amazon’s firing of employees who protested working conditions during the pandemic. In his public resignation letter, Bray wrote that the company has been “firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of COVID-19.” Bray called the company “chickenshit.” He said the firings were “designed to create a climate of fear.”
“Amazon may be one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world, it made a lot of money during the pandemic when workers like me were working 60-hour weeks doing brutal and dangerous work inside warehouses,” said Rodriguez in a May 7, 2021, statement. The New York Times reported on April 29 that Amazon registered $108.5 billion in sales in the first quarter of the year, up 44 percent from a year earlier. It also posted $8.1 billion in profit.
Rodriguez reported her situation to a Human Resources official who “reacted… with explosive anger” and stated Rodriguez’s only option was to take an unpaid leave of absence. Through June and July 2020, Rodriguez continued to report Amazon’s failed coronavirus safety procedures. She believed her immigrant coworkers, especially, were put at greater risks by Amazon’s failure to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing, and by the overall lack of adequate cleaning procedures, like not cleaning workstations used by workers who tested positive for Covid-19. Rodriguez began documenting her safety complaints in writing by emailing Human Resources managers and sending memorandums to her supervisor.
Rodriguez, who is bilingual, highlighted the fact she had become an informal translator and interpreter for some of her Spanish-speaking coworkers because the company failed to provide Covid-19-related instructions and communications to them in Spanish.
Rodriguez escalated her complaints on August 22, 2020. She contacted higher-level Human Resources representatives and stated she would take her complaints to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Two days later, Amazon suspended Rodriguez mid-shift, accusing her of “time theft.” The company then fired her on August 28. Bosses claimed the “theft” occurred as Rodriguez stepped out while trying to talk to a Human Resources employee who was leaving the building and while taking “unauthorized” breaks. Addressing these company accusations, her complaint says that “Amazon admitted that Ms. Rodriguez had permission to step outside and was not actually engaged in ‘time theft’ on this occasion,” her complaint says.
David Seligman, Rodriguez’s attorney, argued her firing “was consistent with a nationwide pattern of singling out whistleblowers for undeserved termination based on capricious and inconsistent application of company rules.”
In Tustin, CA, Katie Doan worked at Amazon-owned Whole Foods for three years. She was fired on May 27, 2020, after being accused of “time theft” as well, when she created a running count of COVID-19 cases in the company’s U.S. supermarkets because neither Amazon nor Whole Foods would make the information publicly available.
In Seattle, WA, the NLRB determined that two outspoken Amazon workers were illegally fired last year. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, publicly criticized their employer, demanding that it do more to reduce its impact on climate change and to better protect warehouse workers from the coronavirus.
In New York, Amazon fired Christian Smalls in 2020 after he led a walkout at an Amazon warehouse. Workers demanded better protection against the coronavirus. Amazon claimed it fired Smalls for breaking social distancing rules. The New York state attorney general is suing Amazon for failure to protect workers during the pandemic. That complaint alleges Smalls’ firing was meant to silence other workers who might also file health and safety grievances.
In Chicago, Amazon settled complaints workers filed with the NLRB for retaliating against employees who participated in “safety strikes” last April, as part of their union organizing activities at the now-closed DCH1 facility. Workers, who organized themselves under the name “Amazonians United Chicagoland,” said the settlement resolved six complaints filed with the NLRB in connection with their strikes. That settlement required Amazon to notify employees of their right to organize. Workers were also offered jobs at other facilities after DCH1 closed.
Linda Rodriguez filed her complaint under Colorado’s newly enacted Public Health Emergency Whistleblower (PHEW) Act. The law prohibits employers from retaliating “against workers who undertake a variety of protected activities to speak out about workplace practices regarding public health emergencies like covid-19.” The complaint asks the state to issue “a finding that Amazon violated PHEW, and award Ms. Rodriguez all available damages and remedies.” Under PHEW, workers are entitled to seek reinstatement, back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees.
Similar laws exist in other states and at the federal level. However, as in Rodriguez’s case, employers routinely claim their actions are not retaliation, but simply enforcement of other rules, such as “time theft.” Bosses then bring their substantial legal means to bear against improperly fired workers whose resources to defend themselves are often minimal. Nevertheless, workers continue to resist.
“I saw that Amazon was scared of me […] and ultimately fired me when I raised my voice, but I’m not backing down,” concluded Rodriguez in her May 7 statement. “I’m going to keep speaking out about this company, no matter how powerful and rich they are. And I hope other workers hear me.”
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions