Amazon has been scrambling to perform damage control amid alarming reports from employees and demands from U.S. lawmakers regarding its lacklustre response to the covid-19 pandemic, but on Thursday the e-commerce giant’s PR crisis spiralled even further.
In a leaked internal memo obtained by VICE, Amazon’s top leadership appears to deliberate a smear campaign aimed at Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee who was fired after leading a walk-out at the company’s Staten Island warehouse earlier this week. Worse still, an Amazon spokesperson confirmed to Gizmodo that employees flagged through one of those workplace temperature checks the company recently announced it’s rolling out are not automatically afforded emergency sick leave—even though they’re barred from returning to work until they’ve gone three days without a fever.
In notes from a company senior team meeting, Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky derides Smalls and outlines an apparent PR strategy to make him “the face of the entire union/organising movement,” per VICE’s report.
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” Zapolsky wrote.
These internal meetings, which include CEO Jeff Bezos, are being conducted daily to review updates on the novel coronavirus pandemic, Amazon SVP of Global Corporate Affairs Jay Carney told CNN. “We also spend a significant amount of time just brainstorming about what else we can do,” he added.
The memo goes on to discuss Amazon’s PR strategy for responding to the significant backlash after Smalls’ termination—something Amazon officially attributed to a violation of quarantine protocol after he came into contact with another employee who tested positive for covid-19. Smalls has a different story: In a Forbes interview, he said that the employee who tested positive also came into contact with several other workers, but that he was the only one singled out, presumably in retaliation for criticising Amazon’s “flawed” response to the outbreak.
As part of Amazon’s apparent strategy, Zapolsky wrote, “We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organiser’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety. Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organising movement.”
According to VICE’s report, Zapolsky wrote that there was a “general agreement” among Amazon’s top brass about using Smalls to undermine the kinds of ongoing unionizing efforts that have routinely plagued the company. Throughout this week, employees in New York, Chicago, and Detroit have staged walk-out protests after at least 19 Amazon warehouses reported confirmed cases of covid-19, including one in Queens that reopened within a day after a worker tested positive for the virus
When we reached out via email, an Amazon spokesperson refused to comment on VICE’s report but did forward the following statement from Zapolsky that seems to confirm that the coverage wasn’t off-base:
“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.”
And while a multi-billion-dollar corporation appearing to gang up on an employee is never a good look, the news is particularly damning after weeks of testimonials about Amazon’s purported lack of worker protections at its facilities during this outbreak.
Last week, four U.S. senators sent a letter demanding Amazon intensify its health and safety measures, citing claims from employees that warehouses weren’t following CDC guidelines on social distancing, didn’t give workers enough time to properly wash their hands, and faced shortages of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. In a company statement, Amazon called these accusations regarding working conditions in its warehouses “simply unfounded.”
Amazon appeared to be making moves in the right direction, however late they may be, with its recently announced plans to distribute face masks to workers and start undergoing regular employee temperature checks. Per VICE’s report, Zapolsky included in the company’s meeting notes that it has secured at least 10 million masks for “our operation guys” so far with an additional 25 million more expected to arrive in the next two weeks. However, employee reports have already started flooding in about an apparent loophole in these new regulations that’s threatening their paychecks, according to Buzzfeed.
According to a company announcement Thursday, workers who register with a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher during these temperature checks will be sent home. Those workers will only be allowed to return once they have gone 72 hours without a fever. While Amazon does guarantee two weeks of emergency paid sick leave, it’s only available for employees who have been “diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine.”
Getting clocked by one of these workplace temperature tests does not satisfy these stipulations, an Amazon spokesperson confirmed to Gizmodo via email. At most, employees who register with a fever can expect to be paid “up to five hours of their scheduled shift that day.” After that, unless they secure a positive covid-19 diagnosis or quarantine orders, employees will be forced to rely on any paid sick leave they’ve already accrued or else make use of Amazon’s very generous offer to provide unlimited unpaid time-off through the end of the month. The $US25 ($41) million relief fund for contractors that Amazon created last month also relies on similar documentation from healthcare providers, government health workers, or company officials citing covid-19 as the reason they couldn’t work.
Federal guidelines from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration advise companies to avoid requiring documentation for sick employees to secure financial aid, as the country’s healthcare infrastructure is already stretched thin. Widespread testing shortages have also made securing a positive covid-19 diagnosis difficult for many employees.