A senior Amazon.com Inc executive called a fired Staten Island warehouse worker “not smart or articulate” in internal discussions about how the company should respond to employee criticism of its handling of the pandemic, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky said fired worker Chris Smalls should be the focus of Amazon’s public-relations campaign countering activist employees, said the person who saw an internal memo. Amazon workers around the country have been walking off the job or holding demonstrations to highlight what they describe as inadequate safety precautions.
Smalls said the memo reveals that Amazon is more interested in managing its public image than protecting workers, and he called on employees to keep pressuring the company to implement stronger safeguards.
“Amazon wants to make this about me, but whether Jeff Bezos likes it or not, this is about Amazon workers — and their families — everywhere,” he said, referring to the company’s chief executive officer. “There are thousands of scared workers waiting for a real plan from Amazon so that its facilities do not become epicenters of the crisis. More and more positive cases are turning up every day.”
The e-commerce giant has emerged as a go-to provider of essentials for customers looking to avoid stores during the outbreak. But it has also been criticized for not doing enough to protect workers in its warehouses and those making deliveries.
“My comments were personal and emotional,” Zapolsky said Thursday in an emailed statement. “I was frustrated and upset that an Amazon employee would endanger the health and safety of other Amazonians by repeatedly returning to the premises after having been warned to quarantine himself after exposure to virus Covid-19. I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”
Vice reported Zapolsky’s comments earlier.
Smalls participated Monday in a worker demonstration at Amazon’s Staten Island facility and was fired afterward, prompting complaints from the New York attorney general and other officials, including presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Amazon said Smalls was fired for violating safety guidelines, including social distancing.
Amazon workers and delivery people are panicking as the illness spreads to warehouses and delivery stations around the country. They’ve complained about a lack of communication from the company about the full scope of coronavirus cases in the ranks. And they cite inadequate protective measures despite Amazon’s insistence that it’s cleaning more and enforcing social distancing guidelines. Some workers said they’re being asked to come in for nonessential work, such as processing returns and packing toys, clothes and cosmetics.
Their concerns are getting the attention of lawmakers and regulators even as Amazon executives downplay them on social media. The Zapolsky remarks could hurt Amazon’s reputation in the long term, said Christopher Borick, director of Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion.
“In the short term, as Americans turn to Amazon for many of their needs this incident may not catch the public’s attention or be of limited concern,” he said. “But as we emerge from the height of the pandemic, and the performance and roles of companies and institutions are evaluated, I think this type of incident can add to the public’s existing uneasiness with Amazon’s workplace practices.”
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