A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) investigation has found merit to a complaint that said Amazon illegally discharged a protesting warehouse worker in New York City, according to an NLRB spokesperson.
Gerald Bryson, an Amazon associate, was helping to lead a protest outside a company warehouse in Staten Island, New York on 6 April while off the job, when he got into a dispute with another worker, according to Bryson’s attorney Frank Kearl.
Amazon later fired Bryson on the grounds that he had violated its vulgar language policy, Kearl said.
In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said Bryson was “witnessed by other employees bullying and intimidating a female associate” and that “we look forward to sharing the facts on this case”.
While it respected workers’ rights to protest, Amazon said, that did not give them impunity when acting wrongly.
The news was earlier reported by Motherboard, which also reported that Bryson, who is Black, said he was verbally accosted by a white employee, according to a statement from his lawyer.
In June, Bryson filed an unfair labor practice case charging that Amazon terminated him for protesting over work conditions, which is protected under the law. On Thursday, a spokesman for the NLRB said the case had merit.
The decision marks at least the second time the board has alleged Amazon has violated labor law during the pandemic, which the company is contesting.
This month, the Verge reported that the NLRB said Amazon’s decision to fire Courtney Bowden, a worker who alleged she was terminated after advocating for better worker safety protections and and paid time off for part-time workers, violated labor laws.
Bowden, who spoke with the Guardian in May, said she had worked at the company for more than two years before she was suspended, and ultimately fired, after trying to provide a co-worker with a 24-hour dispatch hotline to report concerns with the shuttle service to the warehouse.
“I had to file a charge with the NLRB because this whole incident stems from me trying to give somebody a telephone number for the shuttle bus company,” Bowden said. “Anybody who is outspoken about labor or safety issues, Amazon is retaliating against a lot of people at the moment. I was recently outspoken on two different occasions during the coronavirus and they chose to retaliate against me.”
In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said: “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. We terminated these employees not for talking publicly about working conditions or safety, but rather, for repeatedly violating internal policies.”
It also comes at a time of increased organizing at Amazon over work conditions, including a nascent drive to unionize in Alabama.
Amazon now has a chance to settle the charge, potentially reinstating Bryson and offering missed pay, or the board will bring a case against the company.
The company has taken measures to keep workers safe during the pandemic, including adding temperature checks and requiring social distancing at facilities. Still, more than 19,000 of Amazon’s US frontline employees have contracted Covid-19, the company has said, and some staff have demanded warehouse closures.
An Amazon spokesperson said the company “prioritizes the safety and health of its employees and has invested millions of dollars to provide a safe workplace”.
Kearl, Bryson’s attorney, said: “Amazon’s goal in firing him was to prevent worker organizing” and meant Bryson “had to go through a pandemic without income. The injustice of that is infuriating.”
The company has faced other worker controversies during the pandemic. In April, two employees said they had been fired after internally circulating a petition about the health risks for warehouse workers during the Covid-19 crisis. And in March, the company drew fierce criticism over the firing of Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker who lead a walkout at a New York City facility. It was later revealed in a leaked memo that Amazon executives had derided Smalls as “not smart or articulate” in a meeting with Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s billionaire CEO.