Amazon settles with two employees who said they were fired over activism

Key Points
  • Amazon reached a settlement with two former employees who said they were fired for their workplace activism, an NLRB judge said Wednesday.
  • Earlier this year, the NLRB found merit to the claims of the workers, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, who said Amazon had illegally retaliated against them.
  • Amazon will be required to pay back wages as part of the settlement, the workers said.
Environmentalists protesting outside Amazon's shareholder meeting
Paayal Zaveri | CNBC

Amazon settled with two former employees the National Labor Relations Board claimed were illegally fired for publicly speaking out about the company's climate record and labor policies.

As part of the settlement reached between Amazon and the two employees, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, the company is required to pay their back wages and "post a notice to all of its tech and warehouse workers nationwide that Amazon can't fire workers for organizing and exercising their rights," the workers said in a statement. They didn't disclose how much Amazon will pay them.

"This is a win for protecting workers rights, and shows that we were right to stand up for each other, for justice, and for our world," Cunningham and Costa said in a statement.

The settlement was announced by NLRB Administrative Law Judge John Giannopoulos at a virtual hearing, where Giannopoulos had been expected to review the NLRB's complaint. NLRB spokesperson Kayla Blado confirmed a private settlement was reached between the parties.

An Amazon spokesperson told CNBC in a statement: "We have reached a mutual agreement that resolves the legal issues in this case and welcome the resolution of this matter."

Earlier this year, the NLRB found Amazon illegally retaliated against Cunningham and Costa when it fired them in April 2020. Amazon previously said it disagreed with the NLRB's findings, claiming that it fired Costa and Cunningham for "repeatedly violating internal policies."

In their complaint to the NLRB last October, Costa and Cunningham alleged Amazon violated federal labor law by firing them "based on discriminatory enforcement of its non-solicitation and communication policies," the latter of which prohibits employees from speaking about Amazon's business without manager approval.

By reaching a settlement, Amazon avoids what could have been a potentially lengthy trial, complete with witnesses and a dissection of its treatment of employees. Had the NLRB sided with the employees, Amazon could have been forced to rehire Cunningham and Costa or award them back pay, among other remedies.

Cunningham and Costa worked at Amazon's Seattle headquarters for 15 years as user experience designers. In 2018, they became vocal critics of Amazon's climate stance and founded an employee advocacy group that has urged the company to reduce its impact on climate change. The group, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, gained the support of more than 8,700 employees and propelled more than 1,500 employees to walk out in protest of Amazon's climate policies.

During the pandemic, Cunningham and Costa raised concerns about Amazon's treatment of warehouse workers. Both of them shared a petition from warehouse workers advocating for more coronavirus protections, and their employee advocacy group planned an internal event allowing Amazon tech workers and warehouse employees to discuss workplace conditions.

Amazon has faced growing scrutiny from employees and outside groups over its labor practices. Warehouse and delivery workers have publicly voiced their concerns around the safety of front-line employees during the pandemic. At the same time, an increasing number of employees have filed complaints with the NLRB, many of which allege unfair labor practices.

Cunningham and Costa's firing last April generated immediate backlash. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Vice President Kamala Harris, then a California senator, joined other lawmakers in writing to Amazon asking for more information about the firing.

Tim Bray, a prominent engineer and a former vice president at Amazon, resigned in protest last May. Bray said he "snapped" after learning of the firings, adding that remaining at the company would have amounted to "signing off on actions I despised."

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