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Amazon firings fuel controversy over its virus response

Amazon firings fuel controversy over its virus response
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Amazon’s move to fire three employees is stoking the controversy over its worker policies during the coronavirus outbreak and bringing new criticism from Washington.

The online retail giant confirmed to The Hill on Tuesday that it had fired three employees who publicly criticized warehouse conditions and safety measures for workers amid the outbreak, adding fuel to the simmering debate.

Those firings followed the dismissal of another worker, Chris Smalls, and the leaking of memos that critics said detailed plans to smear the former Long Island warehouse employee. Lawmakers and regulators slammed Amazon for its treatment of Smalls, and John Oliver brought even more attention to the issue on his HBO show this weekend.

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At the center of the controversy is criticism that Amazon has been slow to ease its rules on paid leave for sick employees, provide personal protective equipment and put in place policies to maximize social distancing at facilities.

On Tuesday, the company confirmed that an Amazon warehouse worker died on March 31 after contracting the virus. It is unknown if the worker was exposed at work and Amazon said he did not show any symptoms on his last day on the job.

The company has taken steps to try to reassure employees that it is committed to protecting them. Amazon CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosHillicon Valley: Privacy, immigrant rights groups slam 'smart wall' proposal | New DHS policies aim to fight cyber 'epidemic' | Twitter exploring allowing users to charge for content Bezos-backed rocket launch delayed til next year Hillicon Valley: Krebs is back on Capitol Hill | Cybersecurity as 'preeminent threat' | News on data privacy and voter security MORE last week visited Amazon warehouses and a Whole Foods store, and the retailer has announced several new safety measures.

At the same time, the company is seeing business boom and has hired 100,000 new workers since the coronavirus crisis began and announced plans to bring on 75,000 more. Amazon stock hit an all-time high on Tuesday, giving the company a market value of more than $1.1 trillion. But the firings are bringing fresh scrutiny on the company’s workplace practices and energizing its toughest critics.

“Instead of firing employees who want justice, maybe Jeff Bezos—the richest man in the world—can focus on providing his workers with paid sick leave, a safe workplace, and a livable planet,” Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike House set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package On The Money: Democrats scramble to save minimum wage hike | Personal incomes rise, inflation stays low after stimulus burst MORE (I-Vt.) tweeted Tuesday.

On Friday, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, both Amazon tech designers and leaders of the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, which pressed the company to take more decisive action on climate change, were fired in Seattle. The two had previously received warnings for speaking publicly about Amazon’s climate policies.

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An Amazon spokesperson told The Hill the two tech workers were fired for “repeatedly violating internal policies” but did not respond to questions about which policies those were.

Both Cunningham and Costa had offered to match donations of up to $500 for warehouse workers, hitting Amazon for their treatment of employees who are providing essential services despite health risks.

“I truly believe Amazon can play an incredibly powerful and good role during COVID-19,” Cunningham said in a statement Monday. “But to do that, we have to really listen to the workers who are on the front line, who don’t feel adequately protected. Who fear getting coronavirus, or giving it to their families and the wider public.”

The third fired worker was Bashir Mohamed, a warehouse employee in Minnesota.

Mohamed told BuzzFeed News he believes he was fired for organizing workers and pushing for more rigorous cleaning and safety protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Amazon spokeswoman Kristen Kish told The Hill that Mohamed was dismissed “as a result of progressive disciplinary action for inappropriate language, behavior, and violating social distancing guidelines.”

Amazon’s spokespeople emphasized that in both sets of dismissals, workers were not fired for criticizing the company.

“We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies,” spokespeople said.

Amazon’s critics, who have long pressured the company over its employee practices, have seized on the firings.

Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSunday shows preview: 2024 hopefuls gather at CPAC; House passes coronavirus relief; vaccine effort continues Democrats: Minimum wage isn't the only issue facing parliamentarian Menendez reintroduces corporate diversity bill MORE (D-Ohio) said the company “should be ashamed.”

“Its efforts to vilify, demean, and even fire its own workers who are fighting for their right to better wages, working conditions and benefits are an affront to the people who make this country work – particularly at a time when Amazon warehouse, grocery and delivery workers are on the frontlines of a pandemic and forced to put themselves in harm’s way,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBiden holds off punishing Saudi crown prince, despite US intel Senate confirms Thomas-Greenfield as UN ambassador The Memo: Biden bets big on immigration MORE (D-N.J.), who led a letter to Bezos last month pressing the company on workplace safety concerns, said in a statement that “workers have every right to voice their concerns to management, especially if they feel their safety is being compromised.”

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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called it “outrageous that Amazon would rather fire workers coming forward than fix the conditions they’re blowing the whistle on.”

Amazon had already come under significant criticism for firing Smalls last month.

The warehouse worker organized a walkout at his facility, demanding among other things that it be cleaned after another employee had tested positive for COVID-19. The company said Smalls was fired for breaking social distancing guidelines after being told to stay home.

New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) and New York Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioDe Blasio calls for investigation into former aide's claims against Cuomo The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan New Yorkers should double mask until at least June, de Blasio says MORE (D) have both called for investigations into Smalls’s termination.

Similar examples of protests have taken place at Amazon warehouses across the country, including in Chicago and Detroit.

Advocacy groups accuse Amazon of not taking the threat to worker safety from the virus seriously.

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More than 70 Amazon facilities have had at least one employee who tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Athena Coalition, which is made up of advocacy groups focused on working conditions at Amazon. The facilities have remained open, although Amazon says they have been cleaned thoroughly.

Amazon is not the only company where workers say employers are coming up short during the pandemic. The company, though, has taken steps to respond to some of the concerns raised by workers about its response to the coronavirus.

The company announced last week that it is developing a diagnostic test to determine whether a person has the virus and pledged to increase cleaning and enforce social distancing measures at warehouses. It has also raised wages for hourly workers by $2 per hour and boosted overtime pay.

But critics say those moves are not enough. And the recent firings are helping keep the retailer in the spotlight.

“Amazon needs to stop retaliating and start making sure employees are safe,” Trumka tweeted Tuesday.