The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency and quasi-judicial body handling workplace practices cases, recently reviewed a number of headline Amazon firings. The Board examined the circumstances under which the company dismissed two corporate employees after they voiced workplace safety concerns. The NLRB announced that Amazon’s firings constituted an illegal retaliation in response to the former employees’ public criticisms. It has also made clear that unless Amazon settles with their former employees, a formal complaint will be filed against it.
A Tumultuous Year
Over the past year, numerous Amazon employees have voiced concerns about the company. This has ranged from workplace safety practices during COVID-19 to retaliatory tactics against those who dared to speak up. Two of these employees, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, were subsequently fired last year after they had publicly criticized Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers. They also publicly pushed Amazon to reduce its carbon footprint in an effort to combat climate change.
Cunningham and Costa previously worked as user-experience designers for Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. In 2018, they joined a small group of employees using their stock grants to exercise their rights as shareholders. They all filed shareholder petitions asking Amazon to release a comprehensive business practices plan to address climate change and reduce its dependency on fossil fuel. The group, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, gained the support of more than 8,700 of their colleagues. The public proposal was a bold use of the employees’ shareholder power, but as Maren Costa said, “It’s exactly what Amazon has taught me to be: bold, audacious, and tackle big problems.”
Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the safety of Amazon’s employees became a forefront issue. In March 2020, former employee, Chris Smalls, organized an employee walkout. His demonstration demanded paid leave and deep cleaning of Amazon’s warehouse. Amazon fired Smalls the same day for purportedly violating a two-week quarantine policy. But Smalls has maintained that his termination was direct retaliation for his organizing efforts.
The case garnered negative publicity for Amazon. Many employees come out in support of Smalls and other warehouse workers. In April 2020, Cunningham and Costa expressed support for their colleagues via Twitter. Costa even pledged $500 to support the cause. The pair, who both worked at Amazon for 15 years, was fired shortly thereafter. In the same week, Amazon let go of another warehouse worker in Minnesota after similar outspoken actions.
Amazon confirmed to news outlets that it fired employees for “repeatedly violating internal policies” banning employees from speaking about the company without first obtaining approval from management. A spokesperson for Amazon maintained that the company supports workers’ rights to protest and criticize their employer’s working conditions, “but that does not come with blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, well-being, or safety of their colleagues.”
Cunningham and Costa maintain that their firing was illegal and retaliatory. They further allege the company attempted to block meetings between warehouse and corporate employees. As Costa stated: “Why is Amazon so scared of workers talking with each other?…No company should punish their employees for showing concern for one another, especially during a pandemic!” Cunningham also released a statement adding, “When warehouse worker colleagues asked us for support to get better coronavirus protections, we knew we had to do something. Warehouse workers are putting their lives on the line and are under real threat right now. We have to do all that we can to support workers on the frontlines, now more than ever.”
The NLRB’s Determination
Since the pandemic began, dozens of complaints were filed against Amazon with the National Labor Relations Board. This included Cunningham and Costa’s retaliation claims. In early April 2021, the NLRB determined that their firing was illegal retaliation. The Board plans to file a complaint accusing Amazon of unfair labor practices if they do not settle the case.
The NLRB is currently assessing the other cases to determine whether they are sufficiently similar to consolidate in one case. When regional NLRB offices find that a company has broken the law and subsequently fail to reach a settlement, the office then issues a complaint on behalf of the agency’s general counsel. Administrative law judges will then hear these claims. Parties may appeal these rulings to the NLRB’s presidentially appointed members in Washington and from there, to federal court. The NLRB has already indicated that unfair labor practices claims against Amazon have been common enough that the issue may result in a national investigation.
Employment Disputes to Come
Amazon expressed disappointment with the determination, stating it “terminated these employees not for talking publicly about working conditions, safety or sustainability but, rather, for repeatedly violating internal policies.” The legality of such policies will likely become one of the main issues on which these complaints hinge, which will have far-reaching consequences on companies that implement such rules.
This isn’t the only Amazon issue before the NLRB, as the Board was counting ballots in a hotly contested election to determine whether more than 5,800 Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama will become unionized. The workers in the Bessemer, AL warehouse ultimately voted against the union. But this flurry of events indicates employee rights issues will continue to pick up momentum. And for Amazon, it’s likely only at the beginning of the litigation process.