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Top Amazon executive sought to put focus on fired worker in attempt to divert from safety criticism

Apr 03. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Jay Greene · NATIONAL, BUSINESS 

SEATTLE - Amazon's top legal executive suggested the company's senior leaders fend of workplace safety criticism by trying to turn the focus on an activist warehouse worker it had fired just days earlier, according to leaked notes from a meeting with top executives.

The company fired Chris Smalls, a New York warehouse worker, on Monday after he complained to several media outlets including The Washington Post that Amazon hadn't done enough to protect its workforce during the coronavirus pandemic. In an email recounting a meeting with senior executives including chief executive Jeff Bezos, executives discussed a strategy to shift the focus to Smalls.

"He's not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we're trying to protect workers," Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky wrote in an email first obtained by the news site Vice. The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, confirmed the authenticity of the email.

When Amazon fired Smalls, it said it did so after he ignored a request from his manager to stay home because of his contact with a worker who tested positive for covid-19, the virus caused by the novel coronavirus. Smalls called the firing "retaliation" for speaking out against the company.

In a statement, Zapolsky called his comments in the leaked email "personal and emotional."

"I was frustrated and upset that an Amazon employee would endanger the health and safety of other Amazonians by repeatedly returning to the premises after having been warned to quarantine himself after exposure to virus covid-19," Zapolsky said. "I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me."

Smalls criticized Amazon's efforts to turn the focus away from employee safety.

"Instead of protecting workers and the communities in which they work, however, Amazon seems to be more interested in managing its image," Smalls said in an email statement. "But while they may have fired me, they can't stop all of us from fighting for the protections we need."

At least two executives on Amazon's most senior leadership team in the daily meeting, executed on Zapolsky's strategy Tuesday and Wednesday. Amazon Senior Vice President of Operations Dave Clark and Senior Vice President of Global Corporate affairs Jay Carney mocked a tweet from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who called Smalls' firing "disgraceful." Clark and Carney put the focus on Smalls, saying he "purposely violated social distancing rules."

Sanders, a frequent critic of the company's treatment of its workers, wasn't alone among politicians criticizing Amazon's firing of Smalls. A few hours after Amazon terminated Smalls, New York Attorney General Letitia James called the move "disgraceful," asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the incident and said she is "considering all legal options."

Amazon continues to wrestle with the havoc the coronavirus has wreaked on its operations. Employees in at least 28 of the company's warehouse and shipping facilities across the United States have tested positive for covid-19, according to Amazon, its warehouse workers and local media reports.

Even so, Amazon said it's already hired for 80,000 of the 100,000 new jobs it announced a little more than two weeks ago. The company is racing to hire employees, who will work in Amazon's warehouses and deliver its packages, to unclog the crush of orders the company has received from customers leery of leaving their homes to shop.

As the coronavirus outbreak spread, some workers complained that Amazon pushes them to meet the per-hour rate at which it wants orders fulfilled, a practice that they worry discourages safe sanitary practices such as washing hands after a cough or sneeze. Employees have also sounded alarms about "stand-up" meetings, in which workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the start of each shift.

The company says it adopted new policies for its warehouses, including nixing stand-up meetings. It's also staggered start and break times to aid social distancing. And on Sunday, the company began checking the temperatures of more than 100,000 employees day at some of its U.S. facilities, sending workers home if they registered a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.


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