Amazon had strategically planned to smear a fired worker as "not smart or articulate" after he helped organize a walkout at the company's Staten Island facility to protest the company's working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. But that worker, Chris Smalls, told Gothamist that it won't stop him from organizing for better treatment of his former colleagues.
"There's no point for me to even respond to [the statement] directly or to even give that attention because it was never about me. Never," said Smalls, who worked for Amazon for nearly five years. "I did this for everybody. I'm still going to do it for everybody. They're afraid of that. Now that we have their strategy—I actually wanna say thank you."
In a memo obtained by Vice News, Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky wrote of 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."
The meeting, which Vice reported Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos attended, attempted to undermine broader unionization efforts at the company, which has long been scrutinized for its anti-union approach. About a year ago, another employee was allegedly fired for union activity.
"We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organizer's conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety," Zapolsky wrote. "Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible, make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement."
Amazon has said that Smalls was fired after he violated a 14-day quarantine that the company told Smalls to follow on March 28th, days before the walkout on Monday. Smalls said he came into contact with someone who tested positive Tuesday of that week, but emphasized others who came into contact with her had not been ordered to quarantine. Smalls added that others were around the person for longer periods of time than him.
The internal notes drew criticism for being racist—focusing on a black organizer within the company who staged a walkout demanding the facility be shutdown as an increasing number of workers became sick with COVID-19.
Dania Rajendra, the director of the Athena coalition, an activist group working to expose Amazon's treatment of its workers, said in a statement: "Amazon top brass chose tired, racist insinuations and snarky Tweets. A better choice would be to make a plan that takes worker and public health seriously."
Smalls said, "If you're a minority right now, you should feel some type of way. You're working for somebody that's—not gonna say the word, but you know what I mean."
"They're already digging enough holes for themselves," Smalls added. "As you can tell, they're trying to smear my image, smear my character. They're saying a bunch of things that are not true."
The memo also detailed plans to hand out masks to hospitals, grocers, and police officers to boost the public's perception of the company, according to Vice. Zapolsky wrote, "If we can get masks in quantity it's a fantastic gift if we donate strategically."
Smalls, whose firing is being investigated by the city's Human Rights Commission, said he is pursing legal action as well. New York Attorney General Letitia James said this week she is "considering all legal options" and called on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate.
Amazon has not provided numbers for how many workers at the Staten Island warehouse have tested positive for the virus, though workers say there are at least 10. Some 5,000 people work at the facility, and Smalls fears the virus will spread to other workers rapidly as long as the site remains open.
"They failed to realize that the people have the virus, not the building," Smalls said. "The building doesn't have the virus. The people have the virus. That's the disconnect. I don't understand why something hasn't been done already. Because there's double digits of the amount of people [who] have tested positive already."
"The country needs to wake up. The government needs to wake up. These buildings are dangerous right now. They're breeding grounds," he said. "If they don't shut this Amazon network down, this pandemic is going to be prolonged."
"They should shut it down indefinitely until we see the flattening of the curve; that's when we should think about opening it up. Bezos has enough money to pay everybody for an entire year in his whole company. Until we see a flattening of [the] curve, especially in New York, the epicenter, none of these buildings should be open. None of them," he said.
Amazon did not immediately comment on the memo.
Zapolsky said in a statement to Vice: "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. I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me."
Though Amazon has framed the organizing efforts as a small group of employees, walkouts have been held in Detroit and Chicago.
In Kentucky, a warehouse was ordered closed by the governor.
Smalls said his friend and former co-worker who is sick has been sleeping in their car for five days because they don't want to bring a possible virus home to their family, and since they have not tested positive or been placed into quarantine, the person has been unpaid.
Amazon's expanded two-week paid time off policy is for "all team members placed into quarantine or diagnosed with COVID-19," according to the company.
In the cafeteria after the first case of the coronavirus was tracked in the building on March 11th, workers still sat shoulder to shoulder in a packed room without space to practice six-feet social distancing rules in the weeks that followed. Smalls says that enforcing such rules is difficult, and temperature checks on anyone who enters the building that Amazon has implemented may not be effective since some people who have the virus may not have a fever. Recent data shows up to 25 percent of people with COVID-19 may not show symptoms.
"There is some deep, deep, deep, shady stuff going on behind those walls," Smalls said. "If this is greed, that's crazy to me. That's insanity right there. You build up this trillion dollar enterprise and you're going to let people get sick and die but you want to build a damn space ship."