Amazon faces probe over firing of warehouse worker in New York

Over a dozen workers at the Amazon.com warehouse in New York walked off the job after reports of COVID-19 among staff.

    Protesters hold signs at an Amazon building during the outbreak of coronavirus, in Staten Island, NY, the United States, where delivery drivers, grocery store clerks, and shelf stockers have kept food flowing to people abiding by social distancing restrictions [File: Jeenah Moon/Reuters]
    Protesters hold signs at an Amazon building during the outbreak of coronavirus, in Staten Island, NY, the United States, where delivery drivers, grocery store clerks, and shelf stockers have kept food flowing to people abiding by social distancing restrictions [File: Jeenah Moon/Reuters]

    New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday that he had ordered the city's human rights commissioner to investigate the dismissal of a worker at an Amazon.com warehouse who had protested working conditions after a coronavirus outbreak at the facility.

    On Monday, 15 workers at the Amazon.com warehouse in Staten Island, New York, walked off the job following reports of COVID-19 cases among the facility's staff.

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    Amazon said later that it fired an employee who helped organise the action for alleged violations of his employment, including leaving a paid quarantine to participate in the demonstration.

    New York's attorney general has also said that her office was "considering all legal options" in response to the firing, citing the right to organise in the state.

    Warehouse, delivery and retail gig workers in the United States went on strike on Monday to call attention to safety and wage concerns for people labouring through the coronavirus crisis.

    Among the strikers were some of the roughly 200,000 workers at US online grocery delivery company Instacart, according to strike organiser Gig Workers Collective, founded earlier this year by Instacart worker Vanessa Bain.

    Workers have also protested in other countries. Dozens of Amazon workers at a facility near Florence, Italy went on strike on Monday.

    French Minister of Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire said last week that pressure on Amazon employees to work despite inadequate protections was "unacceptable".

    From delivery drivers to grocery store clerks, shelf stockers and fast-food employees, workers have kept food and essential goods flowing to people who have been told by their governments to stay home to stop the spread of coronavirus.

    There are more than 846,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the world, and the death toll from the disease is fast approaching 41,500 globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. 

    Amazon, the world's largest online retailer, says it has taken "extreme measures" to clean buildings and obtain safety gear and that "the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day". Less than half a percent of Amazon's more than 5,000-person workforce at the Staten Island site protested, the company said.

    In statements on Monday, Amazon disputed comments from one of the striking Staten Island employees, Christian Smalls, who had accused the company of mishandling warehouse operations after a confirmed case of coronavirus.

    Amazon said Smalls was on a paid quarantine after having close contact with a diagnosed worker, and had "received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines", leading to his dismissal.

    Smalls responded in a statement distributed by Athena, a labour and activist coalition.

    "I’m going to keep speaking up. My colleagues in New York and all around the country are going to keep speaking up. We won’t stop until Amazon provides real protections for our health and safety," he said.

    New York State's Attorney General, Letitia James, issued a statement calling the firing "disgraceful" and also asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate. Amazon did not immediately return a request for comment on the attorney general's statement.

    Hazard pay, sanitiser 

    San Francisco-based Instacart - which lets customers place online orders from grocers, retailers like Costco Wholesale Corp and CVS Health Corp's CVS Pharmacy - said in a statement that the strike of its contractors had "absolutely no impact to Instacart's operations".

    On Monday, Instacart said it had 40 percent more shoppers on the platform than on the same day last week and sold more groceries in the last 72 hours than ever before.

    "The health and safety of our entire community - shoppers, customers, and employees - is our first priority," it said in a statement.

    It was not clear how many Instacart workers were participating in the strike, Bain told Reuters. Bain has created a Facebook group with 15,000 members. She said hundreds more have reached out to her in light of Monday's campaign.

    In posts on social media, people who said they were Instacart workers demanded hazard pay to account for the dangers of working while most people stay home to comply with state, local and federal government guidance.

    They also asked for the company to provide hand sanitiser, disinfectant wipes and soap to clean their mobile phones, cars and shopping carts.

    "We don't have to have 100 percent participation to ... force Instacart to manoeuvre on these issues," Bain said in a phone interview.

    Instacart said on March 23 that it wanted to hire another 300,000 gig workers because of a surge in demand.

    Staff in one supermarket of French retailer Carrefour will receive protective masks after some walked out over health risks, a union said on Monday.

    Employees of McDonald's Corp - as well as people who said they worked at Walmart Inc, supermarket chain Harris Teeter, Waffle House, Family Dollar and Food Lion - boycotted work at North Carolina locations on Friday.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency