Chris Smalls is a former management assistant at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, who was fired after he and other employees walked out to protest the company’s handling of coronavirus.
Since then, New York Attorney General Letitia James has written a letter suggesting Amazon may have violated federal safety standards with ‘inadequate’ coronavirus prevention measures, according to NPR.
Smalls, 31, said his firing is an act of retaliation from Amazon, while Amazon said he consistently violated social distancing rules and was fired to maintain safety during the coronavirus pandemic.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Smalls Organized a Strike at JFK8, an Amazon Warehouse
Chris Smalls left work the second week in March due to health concerns, but he returned to encourage his fellow employees to organize a strike against what he described as poor working conditions.
He walked out JFK8, an Amazon warehouse located 546 Gulf Ave. in Staten Island around noon. He was joined by several fellow employees who were all asking Amazon to close the building and thoroughly sanitize it.
The number of employees who joined him on strike is disputed. Smalls said he rallied around 50 of the facility’s roughly 4,500 employees, while Amazon said there were only about 15.
2. Smalls Was Fired After Five Years at Amazon
In an interview with CNBC, Smalls said he was fired at 4:30 p.m., just hours after the strike.
In a statement, Amazon said they fired Smalls because he was found to be in close contact with an associate who tested positive with COVID-19 and was asked to quarantine himself. When he returned for the strike, Amazon said he violated the quarantine request and was terminated for putting other workers’ safety at risk.
Smalls said he spoke to the colleague in question for two to five minutes before sending her home, but claims Amazon sent her back to work. Smalls also said he was never told not to come to work and had returned to work several times off-the-clock to act as a go-between for management and employees.
According to The Verge, the first recorded case of a worker testing positive for COVID-19 at JFK8 was March 12, but many employees said they learned days or weeks later.
3. JFK8 is One of Staten Island’s Largest Employers
Smalls has worked at three different buildings in the New York tri-state area in the past five years, and he was making $25 an hour when he was fired.
Smalls, a father of three, told CNBC, “It’s not about money for me. This is about human life, life or death.”
Smalls’ protest was supported by various New York non-profit advocacy groups, such as Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change.
Make the Road New York is a progressive advocacy group led by Co-Executive Directors Javier H. Valdes and Deborah L. Axt which focuses on labor and immigration rights.
New York Communities for Change is a grassroots progressive advocacy group focused on changing economic policy. The organization released a tweet Monday night in support of Smalls after his firing.
4. Smalls Said Amazon Workers ‘Are Afraid of Their Lives, Afraid for Their Families’ Lives’
In an interview with CNBC, Smalls said Amazon employees “are afraid for their lives, afraid for their families’ lives … I don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t take care of their people and Amazon has dropped the ball on that.”
Smalls is part of a growing number of Amazon employees putting the company under scrutiny for its handling of the pandemic at various warehouses.
In March, Amazonians United NYC released a petition which now has over 4,500 signatures from Amazon employees around the world demanding the company provide paid sick leave to employees with and without positive COVID-19 diagnosis.
Amazon has said it has taken several actions to defend against the spread of the disease, including staggering schedules to maintain social distancing and eliminating stand-up meetings.
After an Amazon employee tested positive at a warehouse in Queens, New York, the warehouse was shut down for a thorough cleaning.
5. Staten Island Was Hit Hard by Coronavirus
New York City has been the epicenter of coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S., with people dead, according to the New York Post.
At one point, Staten Island, a borough in New York City, set a record two days in a row for the most deaths in a 24-hour period: 27 Staten Islanders died over a weekend after being diagnosed with the disease, based on reporting from the Staten Island Advance.
There were more than 18,000 deaths in the state of New York as of May 1st, according to the New York State Department of Health.
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