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Top Amazon executive sought to divert focus to fired worker amid workplace safety criticism, email shows

Amazon’s top legal official questioned the former warehouse worker’s intellect in a discussion of how to deflect criticism of the company’s record

Former Amazon warehouse worker Chris Smalls protests workplace safety policies outside a warehouse in the New York City borough of Staten Island on Monday. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

SEATTLE — Amazon’s top legal executive suggested the company’s senior leaders fend of workplace safety criticism by trying to turn the focus on an activist warehouse worker it had fired just days earlier, according to leaked notes from a meeting with top executives.

The company fired Chris Smalls, a New York warehouse worker, on Monday after he complained to several media outlets, including The Washington Post, that Amazon had not done enough to protect its workforce during the coronavirus pandemic. In an email recounting a meeting with senior executives, including chief executive Jeff Bezos, executives discussed a strategy to shift the focus to Smalls. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“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,” Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky wrote in an email first obtained by the news site Vice. The Post confirmed the authenticity of the email.

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When Amazon fired Smalls, it said it did so after he ignored a request from his manager to stay home because of his contact with a worker who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Smalls called the firing “retaliation” for his speaking out against the company.

In a statement, Zapolsky called his comments in the leaked email “personal and emotional.”

“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,” Zapolsky said. “I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”

Smalls criticized Amazon’s efforts to turn the focus away from employee safety.

“Instead of protecting workers and the communities in which they work, however, Amazon seems to be more interested in managing its image,” Smalls said in an emailed statement. “But while they may have fired me, they can’t stop all of us from fighting for the protections we need.”

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At least two executives on Amazon’s most senior leadership team in the daily meeting acted on Zapolsky’s strategy Tuesday and Wednesday. Amazon senior vice president for operations Dave Clark and senior vice president for global corporate affairs Jay Carney both mocked a tweet from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who called Smalls’s firing “disgraceful.” Clark and Carney both put the focus on Smalls, saying he “purposely violated social distancing rules.”

Sanders, a frequent critic of Amazon’s treatment of its workers, wasn’t alone among politicians criticizing the company’s firing of Smalls. A few hours after Amazon fired Smalls, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) called the move “disgraceful,” asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the firing and said she is “considering all legal options.”

Amazon’s warehouse workers sound alarms about coronavirus spread

Amazon continues to wrestle with the havoc the coronavirus has wreaked on its operations. Employees in at least 28 Amazon warehouse and shipping facilities across the United States have tested positive for covid-19, according to Amazon, its warehouse workers and local media reports.

Even so, Amazon said it has hired for 80,000 of the 100,000 new employees it announced a little more than two weeks ago. The company is racing to hire workers for it warehouses and to deliver its packages to unclog the crush of orders the company has received from customers leery of leaving their homes to shop.

As the coronavirus outbreak spread, some workers complained that Amazon pushes them to meet the per-hour rate at which it wants orders fulfilled, a practice that they worry discourages sanitary practices such as washing hands after a cough or sneeze. Employees have also sounded alarms about “stand-up” meetings, where workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the start of each shift.

The company says it has adopted new policies for its warehouses, including discontinuing stand-up meetings. It says it has also staggered start and break times to aid social distancing. And last Sunday, the company began checking the temperatures of more than 100,000 employees a day at some of its U.S. facilities, sending workers home if they registered a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

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