An ex-Amazon employee who led a warehouse workers’ strike has sued for discrimination, alleging the company failed to “provide PPE equipment to its predominantly minority workforce” while giving whites cushy management jobs.

The trillion-dollar online retail giant “subjected a class of African American and Hispanic workers to inferior terms and conditions of employment as it offered predominantly Caucasian employees working in managerial classifications [sic],” the lawsuit, filed on Thursday, claimed. It argued the company carelessly put Smalls, who is black, and his warehouse co-workers at risk while safeguarding predominantly-white middle-management employees.

The management associate blamed Amazon’s “delinquent response to the emerging pandemic” on institutionalized racism, arguing the company didn’t care what happened to at-risk warehouse workers “because the large majority of them were African-Americans, Latino or immigrants who were vulnerable because of their recent entry into the United States.”

As proof, he held up Amazon’s “greater diligence” in attending to “the health and safety of managers who, as a group, were disproportionately Caucasian.” Smalls claimed his initial attempt to bring up his subordinates’ concerns over lack of PPE and adequate social distancing and sanitation measures was rebuffed, insisting management only took notice when he marshaled a group that “included Caucasian workers” to complain about inadequate worker protection.

Minority workers were thus “subjected…to health threats to which Amazon did not subject its primarily Caucasian management staff,” the suit argued.

Smalls was fired in March after organizing a walkout of some 50 to 60 employees from the Staten Island fulfillment center where he worked as employees expressed concerns that Amazon was not taking workers’ temperatures; providing masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer; or “adequately enforcing social distancing” – let alone following state and federal health authorities’ “guidance for cleaning and disinfecting the facility.”

While he claimed at the time he was wrongfully terminated for leading the protest, Amazon countered by claiming Smalls had broken quarantine after having close contact with the employee previously diagnosed with the virus, arguing he had received “multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines.” However, that explanation didn’t sit well with New York Attorney General Letitia James, who asked the National Labor Relations Board to look into the firing.

In the lawsuit, Smalls too denounced Amazon’s explanation for his firing – which took place mere hours after the walkout – as “lies,” arguing he had not been asked to leave the warehouse at all and insisting the company had never informed him of any social distancing policies. Indeed, he said, Amazon had “no such policy [of social distancing], no practice of contact tracing and did not quarantine workers exposed to those…who did test positive for Covid-19.” The absence of such policies was one of the reasons the employees were protesting, he said.

Smalls had been told to quarantine “with pay” several days after an employee he’d had close contact with had tested positive for Covid-19, though the senior operations manager who gave him the instruction “provided no specific instructions or duration,” leaving him and his co-workers confused, according to Smalls.

Days after Smalls’ firing, internal memos emerged showing Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky had suggested the company use Smalls, whom he called “not smart or articulate,” to smear all employee resistance. The management associate would serve as a “weak spokesman” for worker rights and Amazon could thus shore up public support for its Covid-19 policies. Those memos proved Smalls was in part fired because of his race, the lawsuit alleged.

Last week, a New York judge dismissed a lawsuit by four Amazon employees from the distribution center where Smalls worked that alleged the company had failed to follow public health guidelines around the coronavirus pandemic. Filed in June, the suit had accused the e-tailer of creating unsafe working conditions by engaging in “purposeful miscommunication with workers,” prioritizing productivity over worker safety, and failing to cough up sick pay “on a timely basis.” 

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