Law Street Media

Former Amazon Worker Alleges Discriminatory Firing Due to Protest Against COVID-19 Workplace Conditions

Amazon's logo on a building.

Las Vegas - Circa June 2019: Fulfillment Center. Amazon is the Largest Internet-Based Retailer in the United States

Christian Smalls filed a putative class action lawsuit against Amazon, Inc. alleging that the company took discriminatory action after he led a protest decrying the company’s lack of COVID-19 Pandemic safety policies and practices. Thursday’s filing also alleged that Smalls, an African American, suffered racial discrimination in violation of federal and New York City law after he was fired, citing an internal memorandum circulated amongst executives.

According to the complaint, Smalls began to work for Amazon on Nov. 19, 2015 in an entry level position. Allegedly, he was promoted to a management associate position in August 2016 and charged with overseeing the work of about 60 subordinates.

This March, the complaint stated, a co-worker with whom Smalls had “close contact” tested positive for COVID-19. Allegedly, Smalls was not affirmatively advised or asked to quarantine, but was permitted to quarantine upon his request. Smalls also reportedly approached HR “seeking clarity for himself and other workers and requesting to be placed on quarantine in light of his known exposure.”  

Later in March, the plaintiff’s concern over Amazon’s supposed lack of COVID-19 precautions grew. He reportedly “served as a liaison between workers, who felt that management was unresponsive to their concerns, and management.”

On Mar. 30, Smalls returned to his Staten Island workplace to lead a demonstration of workers in the parking lot against the company’s COVID-19 practices. He did so reportedly “after confirming that Amazon was not taking the temperatures of workers before allowing them to commence work nor providing its workers with personal protective equipment or hand sanitizer nor adequately enforcing social distancing within the facility nor following New York or CDC guidance for cleaning and disinfecting the facility.”

In response, the complaint stated that “management repelled the workers, including Smalls, and did not demonstrate concern for the group’s health/welfare.” The same day, Amazon reportedly terminated Smalls, “claiming that he was violating its quarantine order and thereby jeopardizing the health and safety of other employees.”

Thereafter, the complaint claimed, a spokesperson lied about Smalls’ compliance with workplace safety measures, and “in a memo to the CEO, Jeff Bezos, its General Counsel, David Zapolsky, characterized Smalls as ‘not smart or articulate,’ and suggested that Amazon make him the face of the workers criticizing its response to the pandemic.”

The single count complaint charged Amazon with terminating the plaintiff “in part on account of his race, concluding that as a black man, he would serve as a ‘weak spokesman’ for these workers and that Amazon could elicit public support by making him the face of the movement opposing its discriminatory practices.” The complaint also contended that Amazon failed to “aggressively implement” safety measures to protect its employees, like mandating personal protective equipment use.

The plaintiff seeks to certify a class consisting of “African American and Latina/o workers at the Staten Island Fulfillment Center subjected to inferior terms and conditions of employment by respondent Amazon.”

The plaintiff is represented by The CK Hoffler Firm and Sussman & Associates.

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