Amazon whistleblowers call Bezos 'out of touch,' say they were fired for trying to protect warehouse workers from coronavirus

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Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, who were both web designers at Amazon, were fired last month after they organized a virtual town hall for Seattle colleagues to hear from the company’s low-paid and largely uninsured warehouse staff. Those workers, Cunningham and Costa said, are toiling in the trenches amid a pandemic that is goosing the internet giant’s stock price even as some of them are dying of the coronavirus.

Costa, a principal user-experience designer, said there are effectively two Amazons — and the low-wage workers in the company’s warehouses are suffering as a result. She said when she first started at the company, corporate and tech staff, including Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, would fly to a Nevada warehouse during peak Christmas season to show solidarity with busy low-wage workers rushing to keep pace with demand. 

“That stopped happening a long time ago — now Amazon is like two different companies,” Costa said in an interview with the Yahoo News Skullduggery podcast. “You have the haves and the have-nots, and there are no bridges in between.”

And Costa directly blamed Bezos for the marked change in the company's culture. Bezos, who is thought to be the world's richest man, has seen his net worth — currently estimated at over $140 billion — soar during the pandemic.

“The Jeff that I knew and worked with and went to meetings with in the early days was not the Jeff, I don’t think, that would do this, do what he’s doing today,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s that he’s just increasingly more and more out of touch ... with his warehouse worker employees or just with humanity in general. He seems to have some blind spots.”

Costa and Cunningham say Amazon is now so intent on keeping warehouse and corporate workers apart that human resources executives not only fired them, but removed the virtual town hall event from the calendars of several hundred employees who had planned to attend.

Amazon’s stock price is up by 28 percent since the beginning of the year with consumers increasingly relying on the internet retailer’s quick and reliable deliveries as they shelter in place. Meeting this demand has required the low-paid warehouse workers who are at the heart of Amazon’s strategy — the company is best known for its lightning-fast delivery and customer-centric ethic — to put themselves at considerable risk, Costa and Cunningham said.

Moreover, the whistleblowers charged, most of these warehouse employees are either part-time workers or contractors, and therefore don’t receive Amazon health insurance or paid sick leave.

“Amazon actively tries to break up any attempts at unionization and that’s part of why they were so threatened by...the livestream [town hall] that we were trying to set up, which was not just tech workers organizing and not just warehouse workers organizing, but tech workers and warehouse workers organizing together,” Costa told Skullduggery hosts Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman. “That’s what made them censor the event, fire Emily and me and try to shut down the entire conversation.”

Asked for comment, Amazon issued a statement. 

“We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies,” the statement said. “We terminated these employees not for talking publicly about working conditions or safety, but rather, for repeatedly violating internal policies.”

Cunningham said these violations allegedly include not adhering to an external communications policy and a “no solicitation” rule, which she says is enforced selectively.

At least five Amazon workers have died of coronavirus, according to news reports, and whistleblowers like Cunningham and Costa say the company’s lack of transparency is only exacerbating an already dangerous situation. Late last month the New York State attorney general’s office warned Amazon that its “inadequate” protection of New York state-based warehouse workers may be in violation of federal safety standards, a development first reported by NPR.

Workers protest against the failure from their employers to provide adequate protections at the Amazon delivery hub in Hawthorne, Calif. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers protest against the failure from their employers to provide adequate protections at the Amazon delivery hub in Hawthorne, Calif. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Amazon has reportedly hired at least 175,000 workers to meet surging orders. In recent weeks, many staffers from across the company have banded together to pressure the internet giant to do more to protect warehouse workers and limit the spread of coronavirus. The unrest within the company peaked earlier this week when Amazon Web Services vice president and distinguished engineer Tim Bray announced in a blog post that after five and a half years at the company he “quit in dismay” over the firings and larger safety concerns. 

“At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response,” Bray wrote. “It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential.” Bray went on to say that firing whistleblowers is “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.” His blog post went viral this week.

An Amazon spokesperson told Yahoo News that the company’s “top concern is ensuring the health and safety of our employees, and we expect to invest approximately $4 billion from April to June on COVID-related initiatives to get products to customers and keep employees safe.”

Costa, who worked at Amazon for 15 years, said the company became much larger and more indifferent to warehouse workers over the course of her tenure. She and Cunningham described a siloed culture that effectively treats the low-wage warehouse workers as expendable while allowing corporate staff fancy perks and the ability to work from home throughout the pandemic.

“There are 800,000 people who work at Amazon [and] we don’t know anything about that vast majority that are not the white-collar workers,” Costa said. “It’s like we don’t even think of them as Amazonians.”

Both women said they have been deeply disturbed by changes in the Amazon corporate culture, which they said emphasizes profitability and customer service over the rights of warehouse workers. Cunningham cited the firing of worker and whistleblower Chris Smalls as one example of the company’s lack of ethics. Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and eight other U.S. senators signed a letter to Amazon pressing company officials to disclose more information about the whistleblower firings.

“In order to understand how the termination of employees that raised concerns about health and safety conditions did not constitute retaliation for whistle-blowing, we are requesting information about Amazon’s policies regarding grounds for employee discipline and termination,” the letter said.

Cunningham said Smalls’s firing particularly offended her because the company’s top lawyer, David Zapolsky, suggested the company engage in a coordinated campaign against Smalls at a meeting at which Bezos was present.

Notes from that internal Amazon meeting were forwarded throughout the company and leaked to the media, revealing that Zapolsky described Smalls, who is African-American, as “not smart, or articulate.” Cunningham said Smalls was publicly attacked on Twitter by Amazon executives as part of an effort designed to delegitimize him and crush the workers’ attempt to unionize.

Cunningham condemned Amazon for keeping Zapolsky in his job while Smalls, a worker in the Staten Island warehouse who helped organize a strike at the company’s facility there and was asking the company for increased transparency on COVID-19 infections among warehouse staff, was terminated.

“It’s important to point out that Chris Smalls is a black man, and for an SVP general counsel — the highest lawyer in the company — to use that kind of demeaning, racially coded, awful, appalling language is just completely unacceptable,” Cunningham said.

“So while Chris Smalls, Maren, and I were fired, David Zapolsky still has his job even after using that kind of language toward an employee and trying to organize a smear campaign against him — and, by the way, this is a meeting where Jeff Bezos and other high executives were.”

For now, Cunningham and Costa are focused on drawing attention to ways Amazon can improve its treatment of warehouse workers. They say the push for labor organizing within the company is the result of a longtime lack of regard for warehouse worker safety.

“How would you feel if in your workplace you weren’t told until eight days later that there was a positive [COVID-19] case in your work environment?” Cunningham said. 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Costa had worked at Amazon for seven years and that she said Amazon had 8,000 employees. She worked at the company for 15 years and said the company had 800,000 employees.

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News 

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