Fired Amazon worker Christian Smalls filed a class-action lawsuit against the e-commerce giant on Thursday, alleging that Amazon violated federal civil rights law by terminating his employment and by allegedly putting thousands of other minority Amazon workers at risk during the pandemic.
The suit, filed in US district court in the Eastern District of New York, calls for compensation for Smalls and more protective measures for Amazon workers who continue to handle packages in the company's facilities amid a worsening health crisis.
Amazon didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The suit marks a high-profile attack against Amazon for its health and safety practices in the early months of the pandemic, when a surge in consumer demand for e-commerce put additional strain on the company's logistics network. Amazon has said it has provided more hand sanitizer, implemented temperature checks and required social distancing at its facilities. But even as the policies were rolling out, workers themselves were saying it was not enough.
In October, Amazon confirmed that nearly 20,000 of its workers had tested positive or been presumed positive for the coronavirus, highlighting the toll that the pandemic has taken on the company's workforce even as Americans have come to depend more heavily on the platform for rapid delivery of everyday necessities.
Smalls was fired by Amazon earlier this year after organizing a protest outside his workplace, the JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island, to highlight what Smalls said were unsafe working conditions at the start of the pandemic.
Smalls began working for Amazon in 2015 and was promoted to a mid-level management position the following year, according to the suit. The complaint claims that after a colleague tested positive for the virus, Smalls confronted his supervisors, who allegedly declined to issue a quarantine order for those who had come into contact with the infected employee. The facility's managers also allegedly ignored guidance from state and federal public health officials, failed to provide workers with protective equipment or establish social distancing guidelines in response to Smalls' expressions of alarm.
At the time of his firing and on Thursday, Amazon said it had placed Smalls under coronavirus quarantine and that by showing up to the JFK8 facility for the protest, Smalls had violated the terms of that quarantine.
'We terminated Mr. Smalls for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment,' said Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski. 'Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines. He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14-days. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite further putting the teams at risk.'
Smalls is not the only Amazon worker to complain about safe working conditions. Amazon employees nationwide have staged protests and written petitions. New York Attorney General Letitia James has launched an investigation, one that Smalls said he has cooperated with.
Last week, a federal judge tossed out a case alleging unsafe working conditions at the Staten Island Amazon facility, saying it was not the place of courts to dictate workplace safety requirements in the middle of a pandemic.
Michael Sussman, one of the attorneys representing Smalls in his litigation, said Thursday's case involves different allegations over racial discrimination, not workplace law.
Thursday's suit alleges that Amazon ignored Smalls' pleas and paid greater attention to the health and safety of the plant's white managers over that of black and brown line workers.
'We would suggest that the cavalier attitude that Amazon took was because they were black and brown people who were primarily impacted at this facility,' said CK Hoffler, another of the attorneys representing Smalls in the litigation. Hoffler is also the president of the National Bar Association and chair of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which is backing the litigation (but is not named as a plaintiff in the suit).
In a press conference Thursday, Smalls told reporters that Amazon's 'white managers were being quarantined, one by one,' but line workers were being told the managers were simply going on vacation. At the time, Smalls said, Amazon had not implemented any of the safety measures it currently practices. Only after Smalls was fired did those policies begin, he said.
In a statement responding to the civil rights allegations, Levandowski said Amazon the company is committed to diversity and inclusion.
'Diverse teams help us think bigger, and differently, about the products and services that we build for our customers and the day-to-day nature of our workplace,' Levandowski said.