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Amazon settles unfair labor claims with two fired tech workers

The company was set to face a National Labor Relations Board hearing on the matter but resolved the issue, without providing details, before the trial began

Former Amazon employee Emily Cunningham speaks during a news conference following the company’s 2019 shareholders meeting. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
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SEATTLE — Amazon settled a long-running dispute with two former tech workers it fired after they criticized the company for its climate policies and warehouse safety record, avoiding a hearing that would have put a spotlight on strained relations with some employees.

The e-commerce giant was set to face Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa in a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board this week over claims that Amazon violated labor law by retaliating against the workers for their criticism even though it was a protected activity.

Lawyers representing Amazon and the two fired workers said in a hearing Wednesday before the case was to begin that they had reached an agreement.

In a joint statement posted on Twitter, Cunningham and Costa said they were “thrilled” to have settled, adding that Amazon will pay them, though they didn’t disclose the amount.

“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,” the women wrote. “Amazon will be required to pay us lost 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.”

Amazon spokesman Jose Negrete declined to disclose details of the settlement, saying in an emailed statement that the company “reached a mutual agreement that resolves the legal issues in this case and welcome[s] the resolution of this matter.”

Just as the firing of the workers could have chilled other Amazon employees from speaking out, a settlement, depending on its terms, could embolden more employees to criticize the e-commerce giant. Had Cunningham and Costa prevailed in the NLRB matter, a ruling could have forced the company to pay back wages and reinstate them.

Cunningham is unemployed, while Microsoft hired Costa earlier this year.

Amazon fired Cunningham and Costa, who both worked on user experience design, in April 2020. Both have been outspoken critics of its climate policies as members of the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. Amazon had previously warned the two women that they could be fired for future violations of its communications policy.

NLRB will file complaint against Amazon if it doesn’t settle with fired tech workers

They were ultimately fired, though, after publicly denouncing conditions at Amazon warehouses as unsafe during the coronavirus pandemic. Cunningham offered on Twitter to match donations up to $500 to Amazon warehouse workers, writing that a lack of safe and sanitary working conditions “puts them and the public at risk.” Costa was fired after tweeting that she’d also match donations up to $500 for warehouse workers “while they struggle to get consistent, sufficient protections and procedures from our employer.”

Amazon has said it fired the workers for violating internal policies, not for speaking about working conditions.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Tech workers have recently become more outspoken about concerns over their employers’ policies. Apple engineer Cher Scarlett recently helped launch an employee-activist group called #AppleToo, to collect stories from workers who’ve experienced harassment or discrimination, according to a report in the Verge, a tech website. Late last year, a prominent artificial-intelligence computer scientist, Timnit Gebru, said she was abruptly fired from Google for sending an email criticizing the company’s treatment of minority employees. And workers at Google, Amazon and Microsoft have criticized facial recognition technology from their companies, fearing misuse by law enforcement and other government agencies.

In their statement, Cunningham and Costa nodded toward the efforts at other companies.

“Workers at every company need to be standing up for each other and the world, together,” they wrote. “Now is the time to be our best, bravest selves. We can only do this together. We hope you’ll join us.”

The two sides agreed to a non-board settlement, which is a private agreement that doesn’t include the NLRB. The settlement still needs to be approved by the NLRB regional director in Seattle because claims of unfair labor practices also relate to alleged violations of the National Labor Relations Act. So the administrative law judge overseeing the matter remanded it to the regional director.

Labor law allows workers to engage in “protected, concerted activities,” said William B. Gould IV, chairman of the NLRB in the Clinton administration and a current labor law professor at Stanford University. Those are often complaints raised by more than one employee about wages, hours and working conditions. And the law protects workers even when they speak out about practices that affect other employees at their company, Gould said.

“If that’s what triggered the protest, that’s enough,” Gould said.

Amazon fires two tech workers who criticized the company’s warehouse workplace conditions

More than 90 percent of unfair labor practice claims that head to a hearing like this one wind up being settled, according to the NLRB.

“It’s certainly not unusual for these cases to settle,” Wilma Liebman, chairwoman of the NLRB during the Obama administration, said before the hearing.

Amazon is also awaiting the outcome of another dispute before the NLRB. In August, an NLRB hearing officer found that Amazon improperly pressured Alabama warehouse workers to vote against joining a union and recommended holding a new election. The NLRB’s regional director in Atlanta is expected to rule on the recommendation soon.