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John Oliver rips Amazon for its treatment of employees during coronavirus crisis

HBO host John Oliver on Sunday criticized Amazon over the treatment of employees during the coronavirus pandemic on his “Last Week Tonight” show

Oliver slammed the online retail giant over its initial paid leave policy as well as over employees’ claims that the company has failed to provide protective gear, time for workers to clean their hands and an environment where workers are unable to implement social distancing guidelines. 

Oliver specifically called out Amazon’s firing of Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker at a Staten Island warehouse. Smalls was fired after demanding Amazon CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosOn The Money: House Democrats line up .5T in spending without budget | GOP takes aim at IRS | House Democrat mulls wealth tax What will Elon Musk and Richard Branson do about Jeff Bezos flying into space? Republicans open new line of attack on IRS MORE better protect workers. 

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The company claimed Smalls was fired for coming onsite after being told to remain home because he had come in contact with another employee who tested positive for COVID-19. 

But Oliver said leaked notes from an internal meeting in which Bezos was present show the company’s leadership discussing plans to make Smalls the face of the entire movement since he is “not smart or articulate.” 

“That is so racist I can't even point out how smart and articulate Smalls is without also sounding racist,” Oliver quipped. 

Kristen Kish, an Amazon spokesperson, pushed back on Oliver's claims. 

Kish said the company has made more than 150 "significant process changes" at its sites to ensure "the health and safety of our teams." 

"Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are evaluating and making changes in real-time and encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits, and speed in which we’re managing this crisis to other retailers and major employers across the country," Kish said. 

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She also reiterated the company's claim that Smalls was not fired for organizing a protest but rather for putting "the health and safety of others at risk" by violating social distancing guidelines.

Amazon’s initial paid leave policy included two weeks of paid time off for anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 or anyone who was quarantined. But Oliver noted a glaring issue with the plan: a lack of available testing and delays in results. 

“Testing in New York is so scarce Amazon’s plan may as well have been, ‘You get double pay and free health care for your whole family if you can guess what number Jeff Bezos is thinking,’ ” Oliver said. 

The company has since shifted its policy to be more lenient, but Oliver points out that only happened after receiving a letter from 14 state attorneys general saying the initial policy was inadequate to protect public health. 

Kish said it is "simply incorrect" to say changes weren't made as "a result of outside pressure." 

"We did it because it was the right thing to do for our associates who are performing a vital service during this crisis," she said. 

Oliver more broadly criticized the response from large companies to the coronavirus crisis and said that every company should be providing paid sick leave. 

Congress called on companies with fewer than 500 employees to do so in its coronavirus response bill. Oliver said Congress needs to mandate the same for all businesses, citing a BuzzFeed report regarding several large companies that have less generous policies.