“Amazon Is a Breeding Ground”

Christian Smalls

Amazon workers are preparing to walk out of a Staten Island warehouse, claiming that COVID-19 is rampant there. “My job description says have a high school diploma and lift fifty pounds. It doesn't say risk my life working during a pandemic.”

Former injured Amazon employees demonstrate and hold a press conference December 10, 2019 outside of an Amazon Go store in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Interview by
Meagan Day

Christian Smalls, from Newark, New Jersey, is a thirty-one-year-old assistant manager at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse. The facility, called JFK8, employs nearly five thousand people — and more with each passing week, as mass layoffs send workers onto the job market and Amazon puts them to work delivering packages to those staying home during the economic shutdown.

But Smalls doesn’t think Amazon deserves the praise for benevolent job creation that it’s been receiving. He says that he knows of seven confirmed COVID-19 cases at JFK8, and he believes it to be the “epicenter of the next coronavirus wave” if it’s not shut down.

Tomorrow, Smalls and his coworkers are walking off the job, hoping to bring operations to a halt and grab Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attention. They’re demanding that JFK8 be shut down for a minimum of two weeks and professionally sanitized. Workers, he says, should be paid during this quarantine, which should be long enough for the virus to induce symptoms in whoever’s currently infected.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Smalls about how bad the coronavirus situation has gotten at JFK8, the company’s and the state’s dangerous inaction, and why Jeff Bezos has lost his respect.

Meagan Day

What’s going on at your workplace?

Christian Smalls

It’s horrendous. Let me just start from the beginning.

Before we had any confirmed cases in my building, I had pretty much foreseen what was going to happen. I’ve been with the company five years. I opened up every major building in the Tristate — in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. This is my third building over the course of those five years. I’ve been with this building since it opened almost two years ago.

So at or around the beginning of March, we had some managers that returned back from Seattle. Seattle is where Amazon has its headquarters, and it was one of the first hot spots in America for the coronavirus outbreak. One of the managers came back, and shortly after that she left because she was sick.

From that point forward, it was just a domino effect. Supervisors were calling out sick. My colleagues were calling out sick. I was sending associates home left and right because they were sick.

Three weeks ago, I took a stand and brought it up to leadership. Like, “Hey, there’s something wrong here. We need to shut this building down and quarantine everyone for two weeks with pay.” They didn’t listen. At that point, I walked out. I said, “I’m not gonna sit here and watch people get sick and y’all do nothing about it.”

I’ve been unpaid ever since, and I’ve been fighting behind scenes. I’ve been calling the health department and the CDC. I’ve sent out numerous emails to the press. I’m trying the best I can to build awareness of this situation.

So fast forward to this week, I decided to go back to work one day to see how things were shaping up, see if they made any safety changes. As soon I got there, around 8:30 in the morning, I ran into my colleague. She looked horrible. Bloodshot red eyes, all puffy. I said, “What are you doing here? You look sick.” She informed me that she went and got tested last night for the coronavirus.

I said, “Wait, you got tested for the coronavirus and they allowed you to come back in the building?” We all know you don’t get the test unless you’re showing severe symptoms. So I sent her home.

Less than an hour later, we had a small managers’ meeting and they informed us that we have one confirmed case. That wasn’t the person I’d run into, she was confirmed later. Instead it was a confirmed case of a person who had started to feel sick the week before. I found this out a little after eleven in the morning, and I was out the door by twelve. On my way out the door, I told as many people as I could to go home.

At this point, I’ve heard of at least seven people who have tested positive.

Meagan Day

Why are sick people coming into work?

Christian Smalls

Because Amazon is not offering paid sick leave. They’re offering unlimited unpaid time off, which is ridiculous because people shouldn’t be forced to sit at home without getting paid for choosing to be safe in quarantine. Since I’ve been off the job, I’ve been taking money out of my 401k just to get by. I shouldn’t have to do that.

The way the policy works is that you only get paid quarantine if you get tested and it comes back positive. But we know you can’t even get a test unless you’re really sick, and even then it takes a while to get the results. So you get people who are obviously sick as a dog coming into work.

My colleague I told you about before, she’d been to work for the last eight days in a row. There are about 150 people in that department daily. She’d been in contact with the whole entire department. I sent her home on Tuesday and she tested positive on Wednesday.

She’d been in contact with so many people, and the only person they ended up giving quarantine to was me.

Meagan Day

Wait, you haven’t tested positive for the virus. Why did they quarantine you?

Christian Smalls

Because I’m being rebellious right now. I’ve been coming to the building, bringing groups of ten or twenty people to the general manager’s office to voice our concerns. They decided to cut off the head of the snake. They quarantined me as of yesterday. So I’m getting paid now, but I don’t even care about the money. At this point I’m just trying to organize. I’m just doing what I feel is right.

Meagan Day

I’m looking at a quote from an Amazon spokesperson who says, “We are following all guidelines from local health officials and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.” Is that true?

Christian Smalls

That’s absolutely false. These spokespeople that they have talking to the press are sugarcoating everything. They don’t know a damn thing about what’s going on in these buildings. They’re even downplaying the number of positive cases confirmed.

Everything the company is doing is reactive, not proactive. The tables were still together two weeks ago. They just started separating them when I brought it up to their attention. Now they want to start taking temperatures at the door. The virus has been in the building for weeks, and now you want to take temperatures?

What is the purpose? What is it that we’re doing that’s worth the risk? Jeff Bezos is saying we’re like the Red Cross, but we still have a large amount of inventory that is being sold to the public that is non-essential. Even on essential items, if we’re all carrying the virus while we’re handling all these packages, I’m not really sure we’re helping people. We’re touching metal, plastic, and cardboard all day long, all things we know the virus can survive on, and shipping out packages to thousands and thousands of people.

Jeff Bezos says we’re helping the community. We’re keeping business going, but that’s all. We’re putting our lives on the line for that. My job description says have a high school diploma and lift fifty pounds. It doesn’t say risk my life working during a pandemic.

I always thought Jeff Bezos was a good CEO up until this point. He dropped the ball. These Amazon buildings need to be shut down immediately. We have almost 5,000 people at JFK8. You do the math. If they don’t shut it down, this is the epicenter of the next coronavirus wave right here.

Meagan Day

So what’s the plan? You’re striking tomorrow?

Christian Smalls

Yes, I organized for workers to walk out tomorrow around noon. Our walkout is going to be anywhere between fifty to two hundred people, we’ll see.

I’ve been talking to everybody I can. And I talked to the New York Post, which made it so that more people came and talked to me who were afraid to speak up before. Now I’ve got people organizing with me. For the people we couldn’t talk to, we made flyers for tomorrow’s walkout and put them in all the bathroom stalls, and we talked to a contact in the cleaning company and got them to agree not to throw the flyers away.

We’re hoping that we’ll have enough people that our walkout will cease operations tomorrow. Nobody goes back to work until they hear us loud and clear. Everything is organized. The plan is everybody that clocks out, they don’t return back. That’s it. We’re going to rally outside on public property, which is right across from the parking lot at the bus stop. The press will be able to come and hear our voices and ask us questions.

We’re hoping to get the attention of Governor Cuomo. We’re demanding that he shut this building down for a minimum of two weeks and professionally sanitize it. We want to give every worker that time off to stop carrying the virus, because we don’t even know who has it now. And we want everybody to be paid during that quarantine, but we also want back pay for everybody who chose to stay home this past month.

Meagan Day

What do you think about Jeff Bezos getting praised for hiring 100,000 new workers during the economic shutdown?

Christian Smalls

They’re replacing people who are choosing to stay home unpaid in order to be safe with these new hires who need the money. These new people, we’ve never seen them before. We have no way of knowing if they’re sick. The company is dumping forty or fifty new people on the floor in my department at once, and it puts loyal employees who’ve been there for a long time at risk. It shows us that we’re worth nothing to them.

We should have a national shutdown. Instead we’re keeping certain businesses open, claiming they’re essential when they aren’t, and putting people’s lives at risk. As a result this virus is going to take a lot longer to die down than it needs to. Wuhan did it the right way. That’s why they don’t have any new cases. We’re doing it the wrong way. And it’s not going to stop anytime soon if we keep warehouses full of thousands of people open. Amazon is a breeding ground.

Meagan Day

Are you afraid of retaliation for your role in organizing this walkout?

Christian Smalls

I couldn’t care less if they fired me tomorrow. I’m still going to fight because I feel like I’m doing the right thing. I’m not going to work for a company that doesn’t care about people.

I don’t see how they can sleep at night. I haven’t gotten a good night of sleep in weeks. I barely eat because this is all I think about now. I think about my people, the people I work forty or fifty or sixty hours a week with, who have become my extended family. They’re in this building, getting sick.

And the people making all the money are comfortable off the grid somewhere, and they’re getting on TV and they’re saying everything is fine while we’re in the trenches.

Jeff Bezos can kiss my ass. I’m not afraid of anything. This is the right thing to do.