Amazon Illegally Interrogated Worker Who Led First COVID-19 Strikes, NLRB Says

The state of New York is also suing Amazon for alleged health and safety violations at the same Queens warehouse where workers led the first COVID-19-related walkouts.
March 22, 2021, 1:41pm
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Jason Koebler
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

In March 2020, the first COVID-19 cases at an Amazon warehouse in the United States were reported at a delivery depot in Queens, New York City. At the time, Amazon warehouse workers at the facility staged two walkouts in protest of Amazon's handling of the outbreak, kicking off a wave of COVID-19-related protests and strikes at Amazon facilities across the United States.

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A National Labor Review Board (NLRB) investigation has now found that Amazon illegally interrogated and threatened Jonathan Bailey, a lead organizer of the Queens Amazon walkouts, and has issued a federal complaint against Amazon, according to official NLRB documents obtained by Motherboard. 

The case was settled before it went to trial, but the issuing of the complaint means that an NLRB investigation found Amazon broke the law.

"Amazon did its best to keep everybody working while simultaneously crushing our effort to fight back," said Bailey, who was interrogated and written up by Amazon management after leading a walkout at the Queens facility on March 20, 2020, according to his NLRB testimony and the federal complaint. 

On March 18, Amazon warehouse workers shut down the Queens facility after one of their coworkers tested positive for COVID-19, the first Amazon warehouse worker reporting a positive case in the United States. Two days later, on March 20, Bailey led a second walkout with 13 workers. It was planned during a lunch break after Amazon sent a second worker home sick but did not close the warehouse. 

The following day, a regional manager who introduced himself as a former FBI agent pulled Bailey aside into management's offices and interrogated Bailey about his role in the walkout, told him his behavior might be harassment, and demanded Bailey contact him before any future walkouts, according to Bailey's NLRB testimony. 

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"He interrogated me for an hour and a half," Bailey told Motherboard. "A week later I was called into the office again and they wrote me up for harassment, saying people felt hurt by what I did." Motherboard obtained an audio recording of that meeting. 

Motherboard also obtained a copy of an NLRB settlement agreement, dated March 3, 2021, that requires Amazon to post information about workers rights to organize at the entrances to break rooms, including, "WE WILL NOT ask you whether or not you support employee walk-outs, or about any other protected concerted activities." Motherboard reached out to the regional NLRB attorney on the case for comment and they directed us to public information about the case on the NLRB’s website.

“While we disagree with allegations made in the case, we are pleased to put this matter behind us," Leah Seay, a spokesperson for Amazon told Motherboard. "The health and safety of our employees is our top priority and we are proud to provide inclusive environments, where employees can excel without fear of retaliation, intimidation or harassment.”

“Amazon fabricated false and unjust disciplinary measures to build bogus cases against workers leading the fight to be treated as more than grist in Amazon’s profit mill,” Amazonians United New York City told Motherboard in a statement. “We thank the NLRB for putting in countless hours and validating what we already knew to be true. Ultimately, it is our solidarity that protects us and will win us a better world.”

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The news coincides with heightened scrutiny on Amazon's anti-union practices, as the company campaigns to defeat a historic union election at its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse, where workers could form the first Amazon union in the United States when votes are counted on March 30. 

It comes in the midst of a high profile lawsuit in New York focused on the Queens Amazon warehouse. In February, New York's attorney general sued Amazon, arguing that the company "failed to comply with requirements for cleaning and disinfection" and retaliated against workers who raised concerns about health and safety conditions at the Queens warehouse and another Amazon facility in Staten Island. 

Documents obtained by Motherboard show the NLRB found that management at Amazon's Queens delivery depot violated workers right to engage in labor organizing activity on four accounts in March 2020. Amazon's management told employees not to organize in collective activity "without first notifying [them]," threatened discipline to workers who spoke to employees about a walk-out, and "interrogated employees about their participation" in the walkout, according to the federal complaint.

Under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, it is illegal for employers to retaliate against workers who organize to form unions or who engage in collective action to improve their working conditions.

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The board dismissed three other allegations related to labor organizing. 

Last year, Motherboard published leaked handouts and communications from the Queens warehouse that showed that the company was ill-prepared to respond to early COVID-19 cases and implement safety protocols despite having a comprehensive global security team that identifies threats to the company. Documents show that Amazon failed to comply with New York City paid sick leave laws resulting in what Amazonians United NYC, the group of workers who led the walkouts, said were wrongful terminations. Managers also used grainy video surveillance footage to conduct contact tracing, often struggling to identify workers. 

The warehouse was so short on supplies that managers went to 7-Eleven and Costco to buy out entire stocks of hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, disinfectant, and water for workers experiencing "heat stress." Amazon also passed out talking points to managers that explained how to discuss organizing at their facility, which noted that the company would protect workers from "retaliation" from Amazonians United NYC.

In late 2019, Bailey, a sortation associate, began meeting with his Amazon coworkers at a Lutheran church and his apartment in Queens to discuss concerns related to Amazon's failure to comply with New York City paid sick leave laws, according to Bailey's testimony provided to the NLRB. But in March 2020, those concerns escalated into demands related to COVID-19 protections.

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Using the name Amazonians United NYC, the group wrote a petition eventually signed by more than 5,000 Amazon warehouse workers worldwide in which they demanded that Amazon stop shipment on all non-essential items and provide paid sick leave to all its employees at a time when COVID-19 tests were still scarce. 

"As the pandemic unfolds, the demand for home-delivery is increasing, leading to near peak-level volume across the network," they wrote. "We must ensure that we are adequately protected."

Do you have a tip to share with us about organizing at Amazon? We’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch with the reporter Lauren by emailing Lauren.gurley@vice.com or on Signal 201-897-2109.

This isn't the first time the NLRB has found evidence of Amazon violating workers' right to organize free from retaliation. Last week, the Intercept reported that NLRB notified Amazon workers in Chicago, who organize under the name Amazonians United Chicagoland, and led four COVID-19-related strikes in April 2020, that Amazon had illegally retaliated against them for protesting. In December, Motherboard reported that the NLRB found that Amazon had illegally fired a Staten Island Amazon warehouse worker who led a protest outside the warehouse on his day off in March 2020. 

Since 2019, Amazonians United groups have also formed Sacramento and Chicago. Though they haven't received formal recognition from the NLRB, they consider themselves a union, along with the workers at the Queens facility.