Christian Smalls, a former assistant manager at an Amazon warehouse who was fired after organizing a protest outside his workplace, filed a class-action lawsuit against the company on Thursday. The suit alleges that Amazon failed to provide protective gear to its “predominantly minority” workforce during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, but provided more robust protections for white employees. Smalls also accused the e-commerce giant of violating federal civil rights law by firing him.
As Reuters reports, the lawsuit cites a memo leaked earlier this year from Amazon’s general counsel to Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, stating Smalls was “not smart” or “articulate,” and that the company fired him after concluding that, as a Black man, he was a “weak spokesperson” for warehouse workers.
Smalls was fired from his job at a Staten Island, N.Y. warehouse on March 30, just as cases were rapidly spreading throughout New York City. According to Amazon, the company terminated Smalls’ employment because he joined a protest despite being on paid quarantine leave. Smalls had come in close contact with someone who contracted COVID-19.
Amazon repeated that claim on Thursday, saying in a statement that Smalls was fired for putting the health and safety of others at risk.
But Smalls, who began working for the company in 2015, says his demands for better protection were what soured the company on him. Not only did he organize a protest outside of the JFK8 fulfillment center where he worked, the suit claims that Smalls confronted supervisors directly about a lack of adequate protections. According to Smalls, when a colleague tested positive for the coronavirus, warehouse management initially refused to issue a quarantine order for other workers who had come in contact with the worker.
The lawsuit also claims that leadership at the fulfillment center ignored public health guidance, did not establish distancing guidelines and failed to give workers personal protective equipment (PPE). This was particularly true of the warehouse’s Black and Latinx staff, Smalls said at a press conference Thursday.
According to CNN, Smalls said Amazon’s “white managers were being quarantined, one by one,” a fact that was hidden from line workers, who were told their leadership was going on vacation. Smalls said Amazon didn’t implement any of its current safety policies until after he was fired from his job.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James called Smalls’ termination earlier this year “immoral and inhumane,” and suggested the company, currently worth $1.7 trillion, was union-busting.
“In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited,” James said.
Smalls is seeking unspecified damages for himself and Black and Latinx workers at the Staten Island facility, as well as greater protective measures for Amazon workers. The next few weeks will be challenging for warehouse employees, as coronavirus cases surging to new highs nationwide clashes with the busy holiday season.