Some Amazon corporate employees are angry and disgusted over how their company is handling escalating labor disputes at its warehouses, where facility workers say the company is not doing enough to protect them from exposure to the Covid-19 coronavirus.
On internal company email lists and chat groups on Thursday and Friday that Recode viewed, Amazon white-collar workers expressed dismay over a report from Vice News that the company’s top lawyer had referred to a recently fired warehouse worker as “not smart, or articulate” and implied that executives should use that to help squelch worker unionization efforts.
Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky had used that language to describe the fired warehouse worker, Christian Smalls, in notes from a meeting on Wednesday attended by top Amazon executives, including CEO Jeff Bezos.
In the wake of the revelation, stunned Amazon corporate employees aired their disappointment in leadership on a listserv that includes thousands of fellow employees. Others convened in smaller virtual groups on Amazon’s workplace messaging service, Chime, after an employee moderator shut down one of the email threads.
“We are in a challenging and exceptional situation — but this type of behavior doesn’t align with our [leadership principles] or the image and values we try to embody when working with customers and candidates,” one Amazon employee wrote Friday on one of the email threads viewed by Recode. “If this isn’t [a] situation where people should have backbone and insist on higher standards for our leadership then what are we even doing here.”
A different employee referred to the Zapolsky situation and that an employee moderator shut down the discussion as “probably the most concerning event and subsequent silencing I have seen at Amazon.”
And another employee expressing concern over the conversation being shut down wrote, “a worker at the bottom of our company’s hierarchy being treated like this strikes me as being exactly the kind of inclusivity and diversity issue that should be discussed openly at Amazon.”
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the employee conversations.
The internal backlash to Zapolsky’s comments suggests growing internal schisms between a new generation of rank-and-file employees at Amazon, who are more prone to challenging the tech giant’s broader societal impact, and executive leaders, many of whom have worked alongside CEO Jeff Bezos for more than 20 years.
In the past two years, lower-level corporate employees have challenged Bezos and other top leaders internally on matters like a lack of diversity at the top rungs of the company, and externally on the company’s environmental impact. Around 580 corporate employees so far have signed a letter that began circulating at the end of March to support increased safety measures and benefits for warehouse workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Several Amazon employees wondered why their company would invite more scrutiny by publicly targeting one of its front-line workers. Amazon has more than 500,000 employees in the US alone and has added 80,000 over the past few weeks in response to the pandemic; meanwhile, many of its brick-and-mortar competitors are struggling and either furloughing or laying off employees en masse amid widespread store closures.
These latest internal fractures over labor come at a pivotal time for Amazon, which has been transformed during the coronavirus pandemic from a popular retail engine of convenience to a necessary resource as millions of Americans — or at least those who can afford to — stay home to try to slow the spread of the disease. Even before the pandemic, Amazon had faced scrutiny from progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders as well as workers’ rights groups over its treatment of the hundreds of thousands of people who power its packing and shipping operations. The firing of Smalls, and the executive conversations about him, have now touched off both internal criticism and a new round of public support for its workers, whom Amazon executives have referred to as “retail heroes.”
Amazon has scrambled to implement drastic changes to its business operations, with surging demand for delivery of items like soap, household supplies, and shelf-stable food. The company has banned its warehouses from storing certain nonessential items, and it has limited the sale of face masks and surgical shields to only hospitals and governments.
It’s also introduced new policies for workers. Amazon was one of the first retailers to raise pay for its warehouse employees amid the crisis — boosting salaries by $2 an hour. It’s also stepped up sanitation efforts across its warehouse network, staggered break times to promote social distancing, and eliminated the face-to-face meetings between managers and groups of workers that typically kick off each new shift. Earlier this week, Amazon said it would begin checking the temperature of warehouse workers at the start of each shift and planned to distribute masks, which it ordered weeks ago, to its front-line staff.
Yet cases of Covid-19 in more than two dozen Amazon facilities in the US have sparked fear and anger among some warehouse workers like Smalls, who say they’re risking their lives in unsafe conditions while most of Amazon’s office staff has the luxury of working from home. Smalls had worked in Amazon warehouses for more than four years before the company fired him on Monday, shortly after he led a walkout of a small group of workers at the company’s Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center.
The group was protesting Amazon’s unwillingness to provide paid leave for any warehouse worker who feels unsafe working through the pandemic — Amazon requires, at a minimum, that employees have common Covid-19 symptoms or exposure to a person with a confirmed case. They are also calling the company to fully close down and deep-clean a facility if any of its employees are diagnosed with Covid-19. Amazon says whether it temporarily closes a facility is determined by factors including the last time a worker was at a facility and whether it has since been cleaned, as well as guidance from health officials and medical experts.
Amazon has said Smalls repeatedly violated social distancing guidelines at the facility and was fired for returning to the warehouse despite being ordered days earlier to quarantine at home for 14 days after a coworker with whom he had been in contact tested positive for the disease. Smalls has denied violating social distancing warnings, and believes he was fired in retaliation for speaking out against working conditions and leading the walkout.
In the meeting notes that leaked to the press, Zapolsky implied that Amazon should use Smalls to help quash unionization efforts in its warehouse network.
“We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why [Smalls’s] conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” Zapolsky wrote in the notes, according to Vice News. “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”
Disputes over Amazon’s pandemic policies have spurred some activist labor groups to encourage organized walkouts, which have now taken place at three Amazon facilities in the past two weeks. Amazon has long fought unionization efforts, which have shown some signs of gaining steam over the past year. The company often cites its pay and benefits programs, which stack up well against competitors, in dismissing the need for unionization. But employee complaints have focused on a punishing pace of work at its facilities. Data from some Amazon facilities has also shown injury report rates far above industry norms, which Amazon has said is a result of the company being more aggressive than its peers in recording injuries.
“At this time, unionization is likely the single biggest threat to the business model,” a former Amazon executive told Recode, referring to the company’s handling of Smalls.
Amazon employees who spoke directly to Recode on Friday were dismayed by both the alleged plan to attack Smalls and what some believe were racist overtones in Zapolsky’s comments.
“It’s absolutely disgusting that they would talk about a coworker like that,” one current Amazon corporate employee told Recode. “I highly doubt they would have used those words if he was a white employee.”
Zapolsky, the Amazon executive, is white, while Smalls is black.
Another employee told Recode, “I assume convos like that take place, but I was surprised by the obvious racial subtext and by the silencing in the company.”
Amazon spokesperson Dan Perlet said in a statement that any suggestion that Zapolsky’s comments were related to race was “not accurate” and that “Mr. Zapolsky didn’t even know the race of the person at the time he made his comments.”
His intent is only part of the issue, though, according to another Amazon employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal matters.
“It’s not so much what he intended, it’s how it’s interpreted,” the employee told Recode. “And that’s where there seems to be tone-deafness [and] lack of awareness about how our actions and words are viewed outside the company. The risk is if we continue down this path, we will have marched through a one-way door that we can’t go back through.”
This employee was referencing a term made popular by Bezos in his 2015 annual letter to Amazon stockholders, in which he described “one-way doors” as decisions that “are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible” and that “must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation.” “If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side,” Bezos said, “you can’t get back to where you were before.”
Recode also spoke to an employee who believed Amazon’s reason for firing Smalls and thus supported it “because he put the health and safety of my colleagues at risk.” “I know that this pandemic is a top priority for senior leadership and I am thankful for their care and attention to keep employees and customers safe,” the employee wrote in a message to Recode.
“However,” he added, “I don’t like hearing the language used by the executive team to describe this employee. Leaders earn trust when they treat others respectfully.”
When Vice News broke the news of Zapolsky’s comments, Amazon issued a quasi-apology attributed to Zapolsky that read, “My comments were 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. I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”
At a time when the pandemic has thrust Amazon even farther into the spotlight than usual, discord is the last thing the company needs. But the internal backlash among corporate employees over the past few days is an indication of a bubbling animosity in some corners of the company.
In some of the emails and group chats viewed by Recode, the rank and file discussed the possibility of airing their displeasure publicly. Some referred to Amazon’s famed leadership principles. One of them reads, in part:
“Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion.”