By Argiris Malapanis
SCHODACK, New York, July 27, 2022 — Workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in this small town near Albany, New York, protested the death of a fellow worker at EWR9, the company’s warehouse in Carteret, New Jersey.
“We called this action today to honor Rafael’s life and to highlight unsafe job conditions at ALB1,” said Heather Goodall, a picker at Amazon’s warehouse here, known as ALB1. Goodall is also the union campaign manager here.
Rafael Reynaldo Mota Frias, 42, died while working at EWR9 on July 13. His family later confirmed on Facebook posts that he died from cardiac arrest. The fatality occurred during the company’s Prime Day shopping rush at the Carteret fulfillment center.
Frias was an immigrant worker from La Romana, Dominican Republic, his family revealed on Facebook. “You will never be forgotten,” a niece wrote in a post. “We will always remember you as the selfless man that you were. Always worrying about people’s health and stability. He was hardworking, funny, and affectionate.”
Two of Frias’s coworkers told NBC News last week the area where the deceased passed out was on the upper floor of the warehouse known for very high temperatures.
One colleague told The Daily Beast that Frias and other workers had pleaded for fans to be placed in their work area hours before he died. “It’s crazy because I was right there,” said the worker, who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation by the company, according to a July 26 report by the The Daily Beast. “I feel like Amazon as a whole could have done way more about the situation.”
Marlen Frias, a cousin of Rafael, told The Daily Beast she felt similarly. “He was accomplished at his job but it was too demanding,” she said.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has reportedly opened a federal investigation into Frias’s death.
Chris Smalls, Amazon Labor Union (ALU) interim president in Staten Island, New York, used his Twitter account (with 175,000 followers) to call attention to the tragedy. In a July 21 tweet, Smalls said he had learned the company took an hour to call 911 and that Frias was unconscious on the EWR9 floor for 20 minutes.
The ALU won a historic union election at JFK8, Amazon’s giant fulfillment center in Staten Island, on April 1. ALB1 workers recently partnered with the ALU in Staten Island, launching their own union organizing campaign at the Schodack warehouse. (See “Amazon Workers Rally in Albany, Expand Support for Union.”)
Amazon dismissed the reports by EWR9 employees and ALU leaders on Frias’s death as “rumors,” claiming the fatality had nothing to do with working conditions.
After ALB1 workers called today’s lunchtime walkout to protest Frias’s death and highlight unsafe conditions in their own workplace, Amazon tried to minimize the action’s impact.
The company mobilized more than two dozen supervisors and other management personnel to form a circle around the front entrance to the Schodack warehouse before the lunchtime protest. Amazon called police to patrol the parking lot. The company asked police to eject anyone not employed at ALB1. The cops obliged, telling journalists and non-employee ALU supporters to vacate company property.
Despite the company’s heavy hand, about 15 ALB1 workers walked out during the lunchtime protest. They held a minute of silence in memory of Rafael Frias, Goodall said.
About a dozen ALU supporters, including members of the Albany Central Labor Council, simultaneously held an informational picket line on U.S. Route 9 at the entrance to ALB1. They held signs reading: “Unions for All,” “Protect All Workers,” and “Albany County Central Federation of Labor Supports You.”
“We are here to support ALB1 employees,” said Ibrahím Pedriñán, Albany County Labor Council president. “Their effort to organize a union and to improve working conditions is in the interest of all workers.”
After the lunchtime protest, Goodall joined the informational picket line at the highway entrance to ALB1 and held an impromptu press conference.
Job conditions at Amazon are often unsafe, she said. They include working in extreme heat while under pressure to meet unrelenting quotas, which can exacerbate various medical conditions workers face. Fans are often broken, and the company does not fix them or turn on air conditioning. Conveyor belts often jam, bins are overstuffed and collapse under the over-the-limit weight, and wires often left exposed can injure workers retrieving items from shelves, she noted.
Goodall related a personal story that “could have well been very similar to what led to Rafael’s death,” she said.
After Goodall returned from light duty on July 1, the company refused her repeated requests to be transferred to a less strenuous assignment and insisted she resume her job as a picker, even though management knew she suffered from a heart condition. Within 24 hours, she experienced heart palpitations, chest pains, and a spike in blood pressure while working. Goodall had to be taken to the ER by ambulance. “I was lucky I was taking my heart medications, or I could have also suffered a fatal heart attack,” she said. “Rafael was not so lucky.” (See “ALB1 Amazon Workers Call Walkout over New Jersey Death.”)
Goodall and union supporters held up signs with the names of five Amazon workers who have died on the job under similar circumstances.
Goodall said the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) placed Amazon on its most recent ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of employers. It cited a high incidence of worker suicide attempts, overworked employees peeing in bottles to avoid punishment for taking what Amazon considers “too much time” to go to the bathroom, poor treatment of contract and temporary workers, and injury rates twice the industry average, Goodall said. The list can be seen here.
“We will no longer be silent,” the union organizer said. “That’s why we are trying to unionize ALB1.”
After the protest, ALB1 workers and their supporters drove to the New York State Capitol to press their demand that Governor Kathy Hochul sign the Warehouse Worker Protection Act, recently passed by both houses of the New York legislature.
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions