Amazon hid information of a coronavirus outbreak from employees at one of its distribution centers in New York City, said Chris Smalls, who was fired by Amazon after he blew the whistle on the outbreak at his warehouse and helped organize a walkout to protest the unsafe working conditions there.
Smalls spoke with SiriusXM’s Breitbart News Tonight host Rebecca Mansour about the conditions at his warehouse that led to the walkout and his termination.
“At the beginning of March, we were unprotected,” said Smalls. “We didn’t have any facial masks, we didn’t have any cleaning supplies. We didn’t have the right type of gloves that protect our skin. My associates, my employees that I supervised were falling ill in a domino effect, one by one [with] flu-like symptoms. Some of them were even vomiting at their stations. It was very alarming to me. I started to raise my concerns to my local HR department.”
Smalls added, “We didn’t have any confirmed cases at the time, but I wanted to be proactive instead of reactive [in] dealing with something that we’d never dealt before, this virus. I was concerned. They pretty much swept it under the rug because we didn’t have any safety guidelines implemented at the time. We didn’t have any cases; we were nonchalant about it.”
“So I fought behind the scenes,” Smalls continued. “I sent emails out to the CDC, to the health department, to the government of New York try to get the building closed down, quarantined for two weeks, because what I’d seen hand-in-hand and face-to-face was my employees and my colleagues around me begin to fall sick.”
“I had to go back to work,” Smalls remarked. “I took some time off to protect myself, protect my family, my kids. After a while, I was like, no, this unpaid policy that Amazon’s offering is basically you don’t get paid time [off]. You can stay home as long as you want, but you don’t get paid for it. It wasn’t really an option for me. I had to pay my bills.”
Smalls continued, “I returned back to work on March 24th. When I returned that day, my colleague — who’s a supervisor in the same department — she was sick. Her eyes were bloodshot red. She was sluggish. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ She told me she went for testing the night before. We all know you can’t get the test unless you’re showing severe symptoms. I said, ‘Yeah, you should go home immediately.'”
Smalls stated, “The policy for Amazon is you’re allowed to come to work sick as a dog, even if you have the virus, until they receive physical documentation from the doctors, which could take a number of days or weeks. Obviously, it being the epicenter [in] New York, it takes a while.”
“But she went home,” Smalls recalled. “Thank God, because she did test positive. Two hours later, we had a management meeting, and that’s where we learned about our first case. The [infected] associate was in the building on March 11, so I was expecting us to do what the Queen’s New York building did a week prior and close down, sanitize, send everybody home with pay, [and] everybody return back to work. They didn’t do that. They told me not to tell the employees. ‘We don’t want to cause a panic.’ That was my last time working for Amazon right there.”
Smalls went on, “I walked out of the building. I came back to the building every day that week off the clock of my own free will, sat in the cafeteria for eight hours a day to tell the employees the truth — what management was hiding, the fact that we were exposed to somebody, my colleague, for ten hours a day, multiple days in a row. I was only around for five minutes that day, but my employees were around her for ten hours.”
“We all should have been quarantined with pay,” said Smalls. “The building should have been shut down immediately. But that didn’t happen. By the end of the week, Saturday, March 28th, they decided to quarantine me and only me, none of the employees, not even the person I ride to work with every day. So that tells you right there, they put a target on my back to silence me, but what I did was I mobilized a walkout on March 30th that resulted in my termination.”
“We know that they targeted you because VICE media got copies of leaked notes from an internal meeting of Amazon leadership,” Mansour replied. “Jeff Bezos himself was at the meeting.”
On April 2, VICE News obtained the leaked notes from a meeting of Amazon executives, including CEO Jeff Bezos, that revealed that the company’s public relations strategy towards Smalls was to smear him as “not smart or articulate” and make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” VICE News reported:
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” wrote Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky [about Smalls] in notes from the meeting forwarded widely in the company.
“We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” Zapolsky wrote. “Make [Smalls] the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”
“They want to make me the face of the whole union organization,” said Smalls, when Mansour asked him about the leaked Amazon notes. “I wasn’t that. I was just a concerned supervisor. I’d been with the company since 2015. I was a loyal, dedicated employee — nothing more than just a father of three with a retirement date of 2053. But when they dropped the ball on our health and safety, I put my career on the line. It cost me my career, but I have no regrets.”
Smalls continued, “For them to have that meeting about me, that tells you that I’m speaking truth to power, and that I’m not lying. All I can say is it’s a shame that Jeff Bezos has these people around him. We know what type of people they are now. We know what types of conversations they have, so it’s never going to be Amazon versus Chris Smalls. It’s going to be Amazon versus the people.”
Mansour asked is if any legal action is being taken against Amazon related to its firing of Smalls.
“Yeah, absolutely,” replied Smalls. “The New York attorney general’s office, Letitia James, sent out their demand letter on my behalf, the whistleblower laws, and my own legal team. I have my own personal claims and demand letter that’s been shipped already. So, yes, legal actions have been taken.”
I'm considering all legal options & calling on the NLRB to investigate.
Amazon, this is disgraceful. https://t.co/Cgu09LmwHL
— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) March 31, 2020
Smalls has said that the objectives of the walkout’s organizers is to get Amazon to temporarily shut down the New York City warehouse where the outbreak is, sanitize it, and provide pay to furloughed workers who can’t work while the warehouse is being deep cleaned.
“We only want transparency and honesty from the company,” Smalls told Breitbart News Tonight. “How many [coronavirus] cases are in these buildings that we’re walking into every day? We want to make sure that [personal protective equipment] is provided at all times, cleaning supplies [provided] by the company at all times. We shouldn’t have people bringing their own cases of sanitizer to the job. This company is the richest company in the world. There’s no way that should be happening.”
Smalls continued, “All these colleagues of mine haven’t been to work in over a month because they’re terrified. They use an unpaid policy like I did in March. They all need to be retro paid, including myself. They shouldn’t be out of work right now, at home, unpaid, [with] underlying health conditions. You’ve got young adults that are living with their parents, [and] their parents are telling them not to go to work.”
“These people deserve to be retro paid,” determined Smalls. “Every building that has a [coronavirus] case in it — including JFK, my former building — needs to be shut down for a minimum of 14 days for that 14-day incubation period, because you can’t stop the spread of the virus in these types of buildings. These type of facilities are breeding grounds for the coronavirus. JFK alone has 5,000 employees that go in that building weekly from all five boroughs in New York and parts of New Jersey. This virus spreads into two and a half people.”
“You’ve got to think about your communities and your family,” Smalls said. “That’s what we’re doing this for. That’s what I orchestrated this alliance for with all these other companies, because we all have one common goal right now, and that’s just to save our communities and our families and make sure our coworkers are protected at all times.”
Union organizers are conducting a walkout of employees from various companies, including Amazon and its subsidiary Whole Foods, as part of a broader campaign on May Day, otherwise referred to as International Workers’ Day.
All of Amazon’s facilities in New York are still open, said Small. “It’s a sad situation, because when I was protesting a month ago, it was only a few cases at the time, somewhere around ten or less, but now we’re talking about 50 or 60 cases in that building within a matter of three [or] four weeks,” he remarked. “That’s pretty much every building across the entire Amazon network, across the nation, [having] multiple confirmed cases.”
Smalls went on, “We have 5,000 employees in and out of that building weekly. At least 2,000 people there daily, in and out. The sanitizer was depleted. It was scarce. Everybody in the country needed sanitizer once the coronavirus hit the [United] States. Everybody ran and they cleared those shelves, and they hoarded. The same thing was going on in the building.”
Smalls continued, “People were afraid. They didn’t know what they were dealing with, so it disappeared. There used to be an abundance of it, then you couldn’t find one bottle anywhere, and then you’ve got to think the third-party cleaning crew that they hired are human beings, as well. They’re hearing rumors about people testing positive [and] getting sick, they weren’t showing up to work. So if they don’t show up to work, Amazon can’t replace them on the spot. They expected them to be there, but if they don’t show up, they have no control over that.”
Small added, “These were just the things that we were dealing with. We were literally unprotected for an entire month.”
Mansour asked Smalls about the reported union-busting tactics Amazon and its subsidiaries use to keep workers from organizing to collectively bargain for better working conditions.
Smalls said, “They literally preach to the employees, ‘If you receive any text from any type of weird numbers, don’t respond,’ or, ‘If anybody talks to you outside the building, don’t communicate with them.’ They tell them that all the time. To my knowledge, there have been training videos that are actually out there on YouTube or other platforms that are showing them how managers are to be trained to pretty much single out and terminate or reprimand somebody who’s trying to unionize.”
Business Insider reported on a “heat map” used by Whole Foods to estimate risk of unionization among its employees:
Some of the factors that contribute to external risk scores include local union membership size; distance in miles between the store and the closest union; number of charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board alleging labor-law violations; and a “labor incident tracker,” which logs incidents related to organizing and union activity.
Other external factors include the percentage of families within the store’s zip code that fall below the poverty line and the local unemployment rate.
“This is what they do,” said Smalls of Amazon’s measures to block unionization of its employees. “They are an anti-unionized company, and they continue to retaliate against people who speak out. There have been a number of firings since I’ve been fired now. They fired [and] pretty much dismantled my whole crew, one by one.”
Smalls recalled, “There [was] another associate in my crew that protested; he’s been terminated, and then they put another one on a final [notice]. So it’s only a matter of time before they get him out of there. Those are the things — the tactics — that they use. It’s intimidation, retaliation, and discrimination. So, it’s a shame to work for them at this moment. I thought they were a good company, but it turns out that this virus exposed a lot, and it exposed who they really are.”
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