The city's Human Rights Commission is investigating the firing of an Amazon worker who spoke out against COVID-19 safety concerns at a strike outside of the company's Staten Island facility on Monday, according to the mayor.
The "specific charge [is] that a worker raised health and safety concerns, raised social distancing concerns was fired. The allegation is that because he spoke up for the safety of his fellow workers, he was fired," Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a press briefing on Tuesday.
"I have ordered the city's Commission on Human Rights to investigate Amazon immediately to determine if that's true. If so, that would be a violation of our city human rights law. We would act on it immediately," de Blasio said.
The worker, Chris Smalls, who helped lead a walkout on Monday to protest crowded working conditions and demand the facility close for sanitizing, was fired from his position hours after the walkout.
"Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe," Smalls said in a statement. "I am outraged and disappointed, but I'm not shocked. As usual, Amazon would rather sweep a problem under the rug than act to keep workers and working communities safe."
"Amazon thinks this might shut me up, but I'm going to keep speaking up," Smalls said. "We won't stop until Amazon provides real protections for our health and safety and clarity for everybody about what it is doing to keep people safe in the middle of the worst pandemic of our lifetimes."
De Blasio said the Sheriff's Office inspected the Staten Island fulfillment center for social distancing requirements and will continue to do so.
Smalls himself was on a 14-day quarantine after he had contact with another worker who became sick with COVID-19. The company says he broke the quarantine when he attended the walkout on Monday.
But the first worker to get the virus was last at the center on March 11th, a company spokesperson told Vice earlier this month. That would make a 14-day quarantine end March 25th, several days before the March 30th walkout.
"Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. "He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14-days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite on March 30, further putting the teams at risk. This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues."
Amazon did not immediately comment on the news that the de Blasio administration was investigating Smalls's firing, nor have they responded to questions about the quarantine timeline.
The Athena coalition, a group that has protested against Amazon's various practices, released a joint statement after his firing from director Dania Rajendra and Athena members Deborah Axt of Make the Road NY and Jonathan Westin of New York Communities for Change: "Amazon will give a lot of reasons for why Chris Smalls was fired today. But the facts stand: at midday today, Chris stood up and called out Amazon for failing to protect our safety and our health. Hours later, he was fired."
"Rather than firing workers and pretending the problems don’t exist, we call on Amazon to do what we’ve been asking: issue a comprehensive plan of how you will protect public health, at-risk workers and communities, and provide full payment to people whose work is disrupted," they said Monday night.
Workers said the Staten Island facility was not closed for cleaning after a positive case was first found, and even after a worker tested positive, crowded conditions in the cafeteria room force workers to eat shoulder to shoulder tables. About 10 workers have since become ill with COVID-19, they said during the walkout.
Amazon has not confirmed how many people at the facility have the coronavirus. The company says it weighs various factors into whether a facility should close, such as when the worker was last on-site and how often their area is already cleaned. An Amazon delivery center in Queens was re-opened just hours after a worker tested positive.
The company has said it is tripling down on cleaning, has increased social distancing, and checks temperatures of those entering the facility, as well as increased pay by $2 an hour, doubled overtime pay, and extended sick leave to part-time and seasonal workers.
Smalls said during a rally that was live-streamed on Facebook, "Management has been brushing it under the rug."
"If you ask how many cases they have, they'll never say," he told reporters at the facility. "Somebody needs to be held accountable."
The company downplayed how many people participated, saying just 15 workers of the Staten Island site's 5,000 employees protested. Advocates have said dozens or 100. Amazon called the accusations "simply unfounded," and called employees "heroes" for "helping people get critical items they need in this crisis."