Seattle-based Amazon.com has come under the scrutiny of federal labor regulators following worker allegations that the company retaliated against them for protesting safety conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to public documents filed last week and viewed by Buzzfeed News.
The Chicago-based workers claim that Amazon ignored requests to close their warehouse after two colleagues tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and the company then retaliated against them. The warehouse workers also claim, along with their counterparts in New York and Minnesota, that Amazon management has gone after labor leaders for allegedly violating new social distancing rules.
Amazon’s tussle with workers and federal regulators comes at a time in which all three groups are under extraordinary pressure due to the pandemic. With scores of traditional retailers temporarily closed and customers fearful of venturing out into public to do their grocery shopping, the e-commerce company is trying to meet a spike in demand for deliveries while contending with coronavirus-related supply chain disruptions. Amazon warehouse workers, deemed “essential” to the continued functioning of the economy, also face a dilemma: risk exposure to the virus by going into work, or stay home and risk losing their job. Regulators, meanwhile, are in the precarious position of playing referee in an unprecedented situation governed by largely by federal guidelines which don’t have the force of law.
Under these high stakes, vague circumstances, the boundaries of the employee-employer relationship are being tested.
Amazon has already fired at least four workers whose participation in workplace safety protests slowed production during the pandemic.
“They’re just trying to pressure us and intimidate us so that we don’t try to do this type of activity again,” Samir Quasir, an Amazon employee in Chicago who filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week told Buzzfeed News. After refusing to sign a statement acknowledging that he participated in worker safety protests, Quasir was reprimanded by the HR department, which issued him a “final written warning” for allegedly violating six feet of social distancing. While Quasir admitted that he may have inadvertently violated that, he noted that Amazon only selectively enforces it. “There’s a pattern here,” he said. “I do feel targeted.”
Three other employees in Chicago filed allegations with the NLRB against Amazon alleging retaliation last week.
Wilma Liebman, former chair of the NLRB, said the fact that the regional director in Chicago is scrutinizing Amazon suggests that he’s “leaving the door open that if there’s more conduct that occurs, that he would add this one in to other events to allege as unlawful.”
“To a certain extent, he’s invited them to file more charges,” Liebman said.
While the NLRB doesn’t have the authority to punish Amazon itself, documenting the potentially illegal transgressions of the company creates a paper trail that employees might be able to point to in court down the road.
“Management has been harassing and targeting individual DCH1 workers who participated in the four protest actions,” the group said in a petition published Friday evening. “They are violating our rights, and are trying to intimidate us and bully us into submission.” The group is demanding that Amazon clear the records of the targeted employees and reinstate fired workers in other states.
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