Former Amazon employee Christian Smalls has filed a class action discrimination lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York, alleging that the company failed to provide personal protective equipement to its “predominantly minority” workforce and subjected a group of African American and Hispanic workers to inferior working conditions compared to its mostly white managers.
Smalls began working at Amazon's JFK8 State Island facility in 2015 and was promoted to a mid-level management position the following year, according to the suit.
The complaint states that Smalls brought a group of non-White workers to meet with management about working conditions after one of his colleagues tested positive for the coronavirus, but that management allegedly "repelled the workers...and did not demonstrate concern for the group's health/welfare." He noted that after arranging to meet again with a group that included White workers, management "appeared far more receptive to the group's health and safety related concerns."
In addition, Smalls claimed that management was ignoring guidance from New York and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for cleaning and disinfecting the facility.
As a result, Smalls organized a walkout on March 30 in which approximately 60 demanded that Amazon close down the building until it could be deeply cleaned and sanitized. He was later fired after Amazon said he violated the terms of a coronavirus quarantine he had been put under just days before the protest.
Citing a leaked memo from Amazon’s general counsel to Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, Smalls said that Amazon fired him after concluding that as a Black man he was a “weak spokesman” for workers, that he was "not smart or articulate" and also "an easy target to defeat."
He also claimed that Amazon believed it could gain public support by "making him the face of the movement" criticizing the company's pandemic response.
The complaint seeks unspecified damages for Black and Hispanic workers at the Staten Island facility.
While not commenting directly on the suit, Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski told FOX Business in a statement Thursday that the company's focus on customers is "central to our work in 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.
She added that Smalls was terminated for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violating his terms of employment.
"Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines," she said. "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 one who has pushed back against Amazon for its working conditions, with Amazon employees staging protests nationwide over working conditions. In addition, New York Attorney General Letitita James launched an investigation into Amazon, one that Smalls has cooperated with.
In October, Amazon disclosed that 19,816 of its front-line employees in the United States, or 1.44% of its total workforce, tested positive or were presumed positive for coronavirus between March 1 and Sept. 19.
The company said in a blog post that it expects to invest approximately $10 billion in 2020 on COVID-related initiatives to keep employees safe and get products to customers.