Hafsa Hassan lives at home with her parents and seven siblings. Out of her family, she is the only person currently able to work. But Hassan, who works at an Amazon warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, took a professional risk early on Sunday morning: She joined dozens of others in a spontaneous walkout to protest the firing of Faiza Osman, a co-worker. Though Amazon’s rationale for firing Osman remains unclear, local activists say she had been staying home from work to avoid sickening her two children.
The Minnesota protest is a flash point amid a growing wave of national worker unrest. Amazon associates like Hassan have real reason to fear retaliation at work. On Monday, New York attorney general Letitia James sent a letter to the e-commerce giant warning it that it may have violated whistleblower protection laws by firing Chris Smalls hours after he led a protest at his Staten Island warehouse. In the same letter, James said her office was also investigating other, unspecified “cases of potential illegal retaliation,” NPR reported. In addition to Smalls, three Amazon employees in other states lost jobs after participating in protected organizing activity at work.
Amazon denies that it has retaliated against any employees for their activism. But the company’s stringent anti-union stance threatens to undermine its defense of its actions, and so does its haphazard response to the pandemic. Osman wasn’t fired after leading a protest. She simply stayed home from work, which company policy theoretically allowed her to do. Under Amazon’s unlimited unpaid time off policy, which it instituted as a response to the pandemic, Osman had the freedom to stay home if she felt uncomfortable about working, said the Awood Center, which organizes East African workers in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota. Business Insider had previously reported that Amazon told associates in Indiana by text that “absences would not be penalized” as a result of the policy.
Osman also had good reason to worry about infection, Hassan told Intelligencer. Many, including Hassan, had worked the same shift as an associate who had left work ill on Friday evening. After several watched a manager spray down the area where the associate had worked, “we were all very suspicious,” Hassan said. Workers later received text messages informing them of three new coronavirus cases at the warehouse.
“One thing led to another, kind of like how a spark starts the whole forest fire,” she added. News of Osman’s firing pushed frustrated night-shift workers into action. “Firing someone for staying home, where we are supposed to be having unlimited unpaid time off for that specific reason, is just incredible,” said Tyler Hamilton, an associate who also participated in the protest. Hamilton, Hassan, and their co-workers punched out and filed into the parking lot, where Hassan says a member of the facility’s safety team berated them for protesting. Organizers said 50 associates participated in the protest. Amazon, in a statement to Vice News, claimed the number was half that many, but it did reinstate Osman.
That probably won’t be enough to prevent new walkouts. In fact, Amazon seems determined to push workers over the brink and into a pit. On May 1, the company will discontinue the very same unlimited unpaid time off policy Osman used to stay home. “That shows me that they value their bottom line more than our lives,” Hamilton said. “The only reason that they have to roll that back is to force attendance up.” Workers like Osman, who want to avoid risky conditions on the job, now face a higher risk of termination. In normal circumstances, Hamilton continued, associates who run out of time off get fired. “So if someone does not feel safe going to work in the middle of a pandemic, Amazon will fire them for that,” he explained. Associates will still be able to apply for a leave of absence, but on a press call organized by the Athena coalition, a campaign demanding better working conditions at Amazon, associates said that the guidelines are unclear. “I was not even able to complete the form and answer the questions that it requires to formally file for a leave of absence,” said Rachel Belz, who works at a New Jersey facility.
In a statement to Intelligencer, Amazon spokesperson Jen Crowcroft said the company is simply transitioning a universal policy into a more targeted program. “We’ve extended the increased hourly pay through May 16. We are also extending double overtime pay in the U.S. and Canada. These extensions increase our total investment in pay during COVID-19 to nearly $700 million for our hourly employees and partners,” she said. “In addition, we are providing flexibility with leave-of-absence options, including expanding the policy to cover COVID-19 circumstances, such as high-risk individuals or school closures. We continue to see heavy demand during this difficult time, and the team is doing incredible work for our customers and the community.”
Documents obtained by Recode on Wednesday also show that Amazon is cracking down on internal communications among corporate employees in what resembles a draconian, and probably doomed, attempt to prevent them from organizing. Employee moderators must now approve messages to listservs with over 500 subscribers. While Amazon told the website that the rule has always existed, sources said it had not been regularly enforced. As Recode explained, the company’s listservs have “become places for workers to critique the company’s operational handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in how it treats warehouse workers, who have asked for higher pay and more safety protections.”
As matters pertain to the associates in its warehouses, Amazon has been eager to downplay the protests, positioning them in statements to the press as the acts of a few disgruntled employees. But those arguments are losing their power. The Shakopee warehouse has long been a place where the cracks in Amazon’s anti-organizing campaign are acutely visible. Associates, many of them Somali immigrants, have repeatedly and successfully protested against unreasonable work quotas and for time to pray at work. The facility’s Sunday-morning protest is also the latest in a series that affected facilities in New York, Chicago, and Detroit. Meanwhile, other stressors burden associates. Since the start of the pandemic, they have consistently complained that, although the company now requires them to practice social distancing in sorting facilities, an influx of new employees makes it difficult to follow the guidelines. And Hamilton worries the new rules create opportunities for managers to retaliate further against troublesome employees. When Amazon fired Smalls, it cited as its justification his alleged failure to follow a quarantine order.
“Realistically, everyone violates [social distancing] constantly. All it takes is going down the wrong staircase because you’re in a rush, or passing too close to someone. And there’s cameras everywhere in the facility,” Hamilton said. “If they don’t like you, they just have to pick out those moments, and they can use those to write you up.”
Amazon disputes this. “That’s simply not true. We respect the rights of employees to protest and recognize their legal right to do so, but these rights do not provide blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, well-being, or safety of their colleagues,” Crowcroft told Intelligencer.
In these circumstances, associates may, like Hassan and Hamilton, continue to protest despite the risk to their jobs. May Day, the international labor holiday, is on Friday, and workers have planned protests to mark the occasion. The Intercept reported on Tuesday that Amazon workers will join others from FedEx, Walmart, Target, and the Amazon-owned Whole Foods in a nationwide walkout. Daniel Steinbrook, a Whole Foods employee, told the Intercept that organizers act “in conjunction with workers at Amazon, Target, Instacart, and other companies for International Workers’ Day to show solidarity with other essential workers in our struggle for better protections and benefits in the pandemic.”
“All the workers who have protested are doing so out of concern for their safety and the well-being of their loved ones,” Hassan said by text. “If we are retaliated against by Amazon then they prove that our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech are no concern of theirs. And that profit is more important than the basic human rights of U.S. citizens.”