Tech

Senators ask Jeff Bezos for answers on fired coronavirus whistleblowers

Key Points
  • Nine Democratic senators asked Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to answer questions about the company's decision to fire employees who criticized its treatment of warehouse workers, as well as to provide more details about Amazon's internal policies. 
  • Amazon has fired at least four workers in recent months who were outspoken critics of its labor policies.
  • Workers across the country have called for the company to put in place greater safety protections, including closing down facilities where there are positive cases for additional cleaning.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on October 02, 2019.
Elif Ozturk | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Nine Democratic senators are calling on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to provide more information on the recent firing of four employees who were outspoken critics of its labor practices and questioned whether their dismissal constituted retaliation. 

In a letter Thursday, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin asked for more clarity on Amazon's policies "regarding grounds for employee discipline and termination." The letter was first reported by The New York Times

"In order to understand how the termination of employees that raised concerns about health and safety conditions did not constitute retaliation for whistleblowing, we are requesting information about Amazon's policies regarding grounds for employee discipline and termination," the letter states. 

Amazon has fired at least four employees who called for greater safety protections for warehouse workers during the pandemic.

The company continues to face widespread criticism over its decision last month to fire Chris Smalls, a warehouse worker who organized a strike at its Staten Island, New York facility. Smalls said he was fired for organizing the strike, but Amazon said it dismissed Smalls because he violated social distancing rules while he was supposed to be under quarantine after being exposed to a co-worker who tested positive for the coronavirus. Smalls' firing prompted investigations by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York state Attorney General Letitia James, who called the move "disgraceful."

Amazon also fired Bashir Mohamed, a warehouse worker in Minnesota who had spoken out about his facility's treatment of employees who continue to come to work amid the coronavirus outbreak. Amazon previously said it fired Mohamed as a result of "progressive disciplinary action for inappropriate language, behavior and violating social distancing guidelines." 

In addition to Smalls and Mohamed, the company fired Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, two former user experience designers who criticized Amazon's climate stance and, most recently, its treatment of warehouse workers. Prior to their dismissal, Costa and Cunningham had circulated invites for an internal event where warehouse workers and tech workers could discuss workplace conditions. Amazon said it fired Costa and Cunningham for "repeatedly violating internal policies," including its solicitation policy, by utilizing company resources to solicit money and signatures from their colleagues. 

An Amazon spokesperson told CNBC in a statement that it supports workers' rights to protest and criticize their employers' working conditions, "but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies."

"These individuals were not terminated for talking publicly about working conditions or safety, but rather, for violating—often repeatedly—policies, such as intimidation, physical distancing and more," the spokesperson added. "We look forward to explaining in more detail in our response to the Senators' letter." 

Smalls disputed Amazon's characterization of the firings and said he and the other workers were "wrongfully terminated for speaking out about health and safety concerns."

"We all deserve to be reinstated with retroactive pay and somebody must be held accountable," Smalls said in a text message. "That someone is Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world."

Cunningham said Amazon should allow workers to "speak freely" about the safety issues they encounter at their workplaces. 

"Warehouse workers are under incredible threat right now," Cunningham said. "When workers don't have the ability to speak out, it's a disaster, not only for workers but for the larger public as well." 

The senators said Amazon's "vague public statements regarding violations of 'internal policies'" didn't adequately explain the workers' firing. The senators asked Bezos to answer what external communications constitute a disciplinary action for Amazon employees, whether Amazon's discipline and termination policies are the same for warehouse workers, tech workers and executives and whether Amazon documents which workers participate in walkouts, strikes or other organizing activities, among other things. The senators gave Bezos until May 20 to respond to their questions. 

Amazon warehouse workers across the country have called for the company to put in place greater safety protections, including closing down facilities where there are positive cases for additional cleaning. Warehouse workers have staged protests at facilities in Detroit, Illinois and Staten Island, and they participated in nationwide strikes held last week. The company has previously said it has gone to "great lengths" to keep facilities clean and make sure employees are following necessary precautions. 

VIDEO17:0917:09
What it's like inside an Amazon warehouse during the Covid-19 pandemic