Amazon suspended around 50 workers at a Staten Island warehouse for refusing to go back to work on Monday. The workers said they cited safety concerns over a fire that had happened at the facility earlier that day.
Several dozen workers received emails on Tuesday informing them of their suspension.
“Your badge has been suspended pending an investigation,” read one email, which was shared with Gothamist. “You should not return to the site at this time and you will be compensated for your regularly scheduled shifts throughout the course of the investigation.”
The email didn’t say how long the suspension would last.
“When this suspension is up I believe we are going to be terminated,” said one worker, who asked that her identity be withheld, fearing retaliation from her employer. “I’m a single mom of two. I don’t find that fair.”
The suspensions occurred at the JFK8 warehouse, the same one where workers voted to join the Amazon Labor Union six months ago.
Seth Goldstein, an attorney for the ALU, said they were planning on filing labor charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board for retaliation and discrimination against people engaging in union activity and voicing concerns about worker safety.
“This is a travesty and a full investigation needs to be conducted,” Goldstein said.
James Lally, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said the office is aware of the fire and is investigating the situation. A spokesperson for the NLRB didn’t return a request for comment right away.
Paul Flaningan, a spokesperson for Amazon, confirmed around 50 employees were suspended. He said the company supports workers' rights to protest over working conditions but added that it wasn’t appropriate to occupy spaces inside the warehouse.
Workers who arrived for the night shift on Monday evening spent the first hour-and-a-half in the breakroom unable to go onto the warehouse floor, with no information from their managers as to why or what had happened, according to several workers who spoke with Gothamist.
When managers eventually started sending them to the warehouse floor after around 8 p.m., many described a noxious smell of burning chemicals and smoke still lingering in the air, particularly on the upper floors.
“The smoke and the fumes were still in the air,” said Derrick Palmer, an organizer for the ALU. He worked a morning shift, but arrived at the facility to support workers that night. He was also suspended the next day. “I saw workers coughing, complaining.”
A group of about 100 employees then marched to the human resources offices demanding answers about what had happened, according to several workers as well as videos documenting the protest. Managers told the workers they would be hit with performance write-ups for “time off task” if they didn’t return to work and the protest eventually fizzled out, they said. Most workers returned to their posts. Others spent the night in the break room or walked off the job entirely.
“Amazon is downplaying it, saying we just refused to go back to work and everybody else was ok with it,” the suspended worker said. “Everybody else was scared.”
While Amazon had previously stated the fire took place “outside” the facility, union representatives pushed back on that characterization, saying that it occurred in an indoor area that sent smoke into the warehouse.
Palmer said he saw his suspension as clear retaliation for voicing safety concerns, which should be protected by federal labor laws.
“We were participating in protected activity,” he said. “We’re allowed to protest our concerns about safety and that's exactly what happened.”
Workers at the JFK8 warehouse voted to join the ALU in March, though the company is still refusing to bargain with the employees, while it attempts to get the vote overturned. An administrative judge with the NLRB threw out the company’s objections last month. The company has promised to appeal that decision.
“The ALU calls on management to STOP STALLING AND START NEGOTIATING,” union representatives said in a press release after the fire.
Workplace safety concerns are a perennial concern at Amazon warehouses across the country.
Over the summer three workers died at warehouses in New Jersey. Workers at the JFK8 warehouse in particular suffered injuries at higher rates that outpaced the national average, a 2019 study found.
Over the summer, federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York announced they were investigating worker injuries and working conditions at Amazon warehouses. The Department of Justice is still soliciting information from workers. A spokesperson for the Southern District of New York didn’t return a request for further comment right away.