Amazon tech workers are calling out sick in protest over COVID-19 response

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Amazon tech workers are calling out sick today in protest of the company’s treatment of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The action, which will consist of a live streamed series of speakers in lieu of a physical rally, is a sign that the protests at Amazon’s warehouses have galvanized portions of the company’s white-collar workforce.

The protest is in part a result of Amazon’s aggressive response to worker organizing. In recent weeks, Amazon has fired six workers who have called for better safety precautions during the pandemic, including two long-time user experience designers. Both were prominent members of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice and had publicly voiced support for improving warehouse conditions. The two tech workers, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, were fired shortly after a colleague sent an email inviting employees to an online event featuring warehouse workers speaking about their experience. (That employee had already given his two-weeks’ notice but had his network access terminated, Costa says.) More than 1,500 employees RSVP’d to the event, but it was quickly deleted from their calendars along with the email.

“I was so shocked, I was shaking,” says Costa, who spent 15 years at the company and was fired in a brief video call. Costa says the HR representative told her she had violated the company’s non-solicitation policy, possibly referring to an email about warehouse working conditions she and Cunningham forwarded to colleagues in late March. She believes she was fired for speaking out, and that the firings show how threatened Amazon is by the prospect of its tech workforce collaborating with the warehouse employees from whom they are typically isolated. “They are absolutely siloed, and intentionally so,” Costa says. “Obviously, we tread on sacred ground when we had this brilliant idea to connect those two groups.”

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said the company supports “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.” The spokesperson said Amazon terminated Cunningham and Costa for “repeatedly violating internal policies” but did not specify which ones. Amazon did not comment on the deleted emails and calendar events.

The panel went forward and approximately 400 employees attended, along with warehouse workers from Minnesota, California, Poland, and elsewhere. But the firings prompted employees to organize a second event, this one a protest. “It’s like a walkout, but in the time of COVID, because we can’t really walk out together,” Costa says of the sick out. Instead, they will have a series of speakers — warehouse workers, as well as the writers Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben — discussing the pandemic, the climate crisis, racism, and Amazon’s retaliation against workers. It will be live streamed over the course of the day. “You can come for 10 minutes or stay for the day, or stay home and watch Friends reruns. We don’t care, but we actually have proper programming,” Costa says.

The second event has also met with resistance from Amazon. Tuesday night, an employee emailed an invitation that was quickly deleted. A software engineer in Seattle who asked to remain anonymous “given Amazon’s recent history of retaliation” checked his email after receiving the invitation, only to have it vanish ten minutes later. He had found the earlier panel “eye opening,” particularly the disparity in how tech workers and warehouse workers are being treated during the pandemic: while he and his colleagues were sent home immediately after a coronavirus case was confirmed at Amazon’s headquarters, warehouse workers aren’t being informed when coworkers test positive and social distancing is haphazardly enforced.

“Now that Amazon is firing tech workers for trying to connect with logistics workers, and going so far as to delete calendar invites to events where tech workers can hear directly about conditions from warehouse workers, it makes you wonder, if they’re keeping everyone safe, what do they have to hide?” the engineer says.

Amazon has been vocal about the safety measures it has instituted over the course of the pandemic. In previous statements, the company has touted the “extreme measures” it has taken to keep its workers safe, including mandatory social distancing, increased cleaning, and more than a hundred other policy and operational changes.

But workers say the safety measures have been far from adequate. Their jobs still frequently take them in close proximity to each other, and people are continuing to fall ill. Yesterday, workers at JFK8, the Staten Island fulfillment center that was the site of the first walkout, received a notification that seven employees had been newly diagnosed with COVID-19, bringing the total count to at least 27, according to alerts viewed by The Verge. Amazon has declined to say how many workers at how many facilities have fallen ill, so workers and activists have been left to compile statistics from alerts and news reports. The group United for Respect says at least 130 facilities have confirmed coronavirus cases, some with more than 30 workers diagnosed with the virus.

Amazon has a history of responding aggressively to worker organizing. Earlier this week, Business Insider reported that the company uses a heat map to predict which Whole Foods locations are most likely to unionize. Yet the company has never needed workers more, as it races to hire tens of thousands of people to meet surging demand and replace workers who have chosen to stay home. The result has been a dissonant public response. After workers at JFK8 walked out, Amazon fired the organizer, dismissed the protesters’ claims — and then made many of the changes they had called for. A memo later obtained by Vice revealed executives planning to smear the organizer, Christian Smalls, and make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” Throughout, Amazon has publicly referred to its workers as “heroes.”

The company has fired outspoken workers at warehouses in Minnesota and Pennsylvania as well. Amazon denies these firings are connected to the workers’ activism, pointing instead to policy violations. But employees say policies are being selectively enforced to target organizers. After workers walked out in Chicago, several of them were given write-ups for violating a 6-foot social distancing rule, even though the impossibility of maintaining social distancing in the warehouse was part of the reason they were protesting. (Employees at the facility filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, which is looking into the claims.) “All the reasons they’re giving for write-ups are issues that occur daily, but they’re only targeting people who participated in the action,” a worker there says. “It’s very clearly retaliation.”

That worker is optimistic about the sick out. “I think that’s great organizing to connect tech and warehouse workers. We all have the same employer, just different workplaces and conditions,” he says. “They’re broadening the perspective on how to organize and how to collaborate with warehouse workers, and Amazon sees that and is attacking them for that.”

In the past, Amazon has been more tolerant of dissent among its tech workers, opting for warnings rather than terminations. That appears to have changed in recent weeks, with the firing of Costa and Cunningham. But it’s unclear whether this will be a sustainable strategy for Amazon. The company’s warehouse system is highly regimented in a way that makes workers easy to replace, all the more so in a bad economy. The job market for engineers is far more competitive; they have more leverage, and can leave more easily.

“I’ve also seen many co-workers respond with outrage and dismay at the company’s retaliation against workers who’ve tried to sound the alarm on safety,” says the Seattle engineer. “Amazon claims to value dissent, but they’ve tried to silence workers to protect their own image — that goes against everything tech workers are taught about leadership.” (One of the company’s fourteen leadership principles is “Have backbone; disagree and commit.”)

“Tech workers aren’t used to being threatened by their employer, emails and calendar invites deleted when Amazon wants to silence someone, firing long-time senior employees to save face,” the engineer says. “It shocked a lot of people. It’s going to make us all question whether or not we still want to work here.”

Costa plans to continue her activism from the outside, both on climate and workers’ rights, which she sees as intertwined. Despite her firing, she still thinks like a long-time employee — talking about Amazon, she kept referring to the company with “we,” before catching herself, and she expresses chagrin at what she sees as a squandered opportunity in Amazon’s coronavirus response.

“No company is benefiting more than Amazon right now, the stock is hitting an all-time high, and they could have also been the hero in people’s hearts, they could have set the bar high for how you treat essential workers in the time of COVID,” she says. “I really was trying to make Amazon a better company, for my kids, and for the company I worked for for 15 years.”

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