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Amazon worker says he was fired for calling for unionization and safer conditions

Amazon worker says he was fired for calling for unionization and safer conditions
Amazon Prime packages sit in a delivery truck. (Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

Amazon.com Inc.’s clashes with employees over workers’ rights and unionization now include a Staten Island, N.Y., warehouse worker who says his criticism of the company led to his firing.

A retail workers union filed a complaint Wednesday with the National Labor Relations Board saying that Amazon violated federal law when it fired warehouse employee Rashad Long in February. Long says he was fired after he protested Amazon’s plan to open a new headquarters in New York and advocated for safer working conditions and unionization.

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Amazon says that Long violated a safety regulation at the warehouse. And the company maintains that it already offers benefits that unions advocate for, including high wages and benefits, “all while working in a safe, modern work environment.”

“At Amazon, these benefits and opportunities come with the job, as does the ability to communicate directly with the leadership of the company,” Amazon said.

(Amazon founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.)

Long began working the overnight shift at the Amazon warehouse in October 2018, according to a letter submitted to the NLRB by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Long was outspoken about working conditions inside the warehouse, including health and safety issues, the letter said. In December, Long was quoted in a Bloomberg News story about workers in the Staten Island warehouse calling for unionization. (Long was not available for an interview for this story because of NLRB proceedings.)

Long was quoted in the Bloomberg story as saying, “They talk to you like you’re nothing — all they care about is their numbers.” He was also included in other news coverage through early 2019, saying he worked 12-hour shifts, five or six days a week, without many breaks.

Long was fired from Amazon in early February over what the letter described as a “purported” safety violation. The warehouse, according to the letter, has areas where human employees work and other areas for robots and drones. Amazon employees are not supposed to enter the robot zone, though there is no physical barrier between the two zones, the letter said.

Long said that a product fell off one of the robots near where he was working and that he put it back onto the robot. The company told him the next day that amounted to a low-level safety violation, and he was fired days later. The letter alleges that another employee also put a fallen product back onto a robot but wasn’t permanently fired.

“Long’s termination for his purported safety violation was pretext for being outspoken against the working conditions at the facility,” the letter says.

In a statement, an Amazon spokeswoman said that Long’s “allegations are false” and that he was fired for violating a safety policy at the warehouse. Amazon said there is a clear set of safety expectations in place where Long was working, “and when he was asked, he admitted he was aware that he had violated a very serious safety rule.”

In 2014, Amazon settled with the NLRB over a workers’ rights complaint and agreed to change the rules about how employees share information about pay and working conditions without fear of retaliation. Employees nationwide have tried to unionize for years, alongside calls for backup day-care benefits and higher pay.

Amazon said Long was told by human resources that he had put himself at risk and that he could appeal his firing. But “he declined to take the opportunity,” Amazon said, and didn’t ask to watch a recording of his safety violation.

Long has described his daily routine at the fulfillment center before. In January, he described a four-hour commute to and from the warehouse. Long said health and safety hazards were persistent, product bins were regularly overstuffed and workers were given few breaks. The warehouses were sweltering, Long said, even when it was freezing outside. Long said that workers had asked for an air conditioner to be installed at the warehouse but that they were told the robots inside couldn’t work in cold temperatures.

Long said the sprinkler systems and smoke detectors inside the building didn’t work. He said he recently had to take a leave of absence because he developed carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. Before he started working at Amazon, he never had any numbing, tingling or cramping in his hands, he said.

He specifically called on Bezos to visit the Staten Island center “to see how we’re being treated firsthand.” He said the company prioritized getting customers their packages over worker treatment.

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“We are not robots,” he said. “We are human beings.”

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