Amazon Fires Two Employees Who Called for Better Warehouse Conditions

Monica Nickelsburg, GeekWire
Monica Nickelsburg is GeekWire’s Civic Editor, covering technology-driven solutions to urban challenges and the intersection of tech and politics. Before joining GeekWire, she worked for The Week, Forbes, and NBC. Monica holds a BA in journalism and history from New York University. Follow her @mnickelsburg and read her stories on GeekWire.
Amazon Fires Two Employees Who Called for Better Warehouse Conditions

Amazon fired two highly visible employee activists who regularly criticize the company's position on climate change and conditions inside its fulfillment centers. The employees were terminated for "repeatedly violating internal policies," an Amazon spokesperson said.

User experience designers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, two leaders of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group, were let go Friday. They helped form the organization inside Amazon over a year ago.

Amazon has fired at least three employee activists this month who criticized the company's response to the coronavirus pandemic. The third employee, Christian Smalls, organized a walkout at a New York fulfillment center calling for broader safety precautions after several of his coworkers tested positive for the virus. Amazon says Smalls was fired for breaking quarantine, a claim several U.S. senators dispute. The string of firings come as Amazon faces immense pressure to keep up with a surge in orders and criticism for its handling of the crisis.

"We support every employee's right to criticize their employer's working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies," an Amazon spokesperson said. "We terminated these employees for repeatedly violating internal policies."

Cunningham spoke during Amazon's annual shareholder meeting last year, addressing CEO Jeff Bezos directly and calling on the company to implement a more aggressive strategy for reducing its carbon footprint.

After Amazon Employees for Climate Justice began agitating, Amazon unveiled the size of its carbon footprint for the first time and launched the Climate Pledge, programs the company says were already in the works before the activist group formed. The initiative is a promise to reach carbon neutrality by 2040, 10 years ahead of the deadline set by the Paris Agreement. Cunningham and her peers continued to push for broader environmental reforms.

More recently, Cunningham and Costa have been critical of conditions inside Amazon's warehouses, where a growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks have put the company under a microscope. Both said they would match donations up to $500 to support warehouse workers who choose to stay home to avoid exposure to the virus.

Amazon is rolling out temperature screening across its warehouses and Whole Foods grocery stores to identify workers who may be ill. The company says it has implemented 150 other process changes to keep workers safe.

"Amazon is focused on protecting the health and safety of our employees while continuing to serve people who need our services more than ever," the company's COVID-19 website says. "Our employees are heroes helping people get the products they need delivered to their doorsteps, products they might not otherwise be able to get while maintaining social distancing."

Before the firings, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice sent out an invitation asking Amazon warehouse and tech workers to join a webcast discussion of the COVID-19 situation. Cunningham, Costa, and celebrity activist Naomi Klein plan to host the virtual event. Costa said Amazon deleted emails about the webcast in a statement released by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.

"Why is Amazon so scared of workers talking with each other? No company should punish their employees for showing concern for one another, especially during a pandemic," Costa said in the statement.

Earlier this year, Amazon warned Costa and Cunningham that they could be fired for violating the company's external communications policy. Hundreds of employees responded by publicly criticizing Amazon in defiance of that policy. Cunningham and Costa discussed the threat of termination in a campaign video for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

In addition to scrutiny, Amazon is fielding a huge spike in demand for its products and grocery delivery services as thousands of people stay home to avoid exposure to COVID-19. The company appears largely immune to the economic headwinds plaguing so many other businesses. Amazon stock reached an all-time high Monday, hitting a record price of $2,262/share and eclipsing a previous mark set in February. The company has hired 100,000 new warehouse workers since the crisis began and plans to add an additional 75,000.

This story first appeared on GeekWire.

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