Amazon had a strategy to smear the organizer of a worker walkout at the online retailing giant's Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center on Monday, according to leaked notes from a company meeting.
The notes, circulated as a memo within Amazon, and acquired by Vice News, addressed many issues about the company's planned actions during the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Amazon fired Chris Smalls, the organizer of the workplace walkout several hours after the event Monday.
In response to any regulatory or media query about Smalls, "we should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety," according to the memo, reportedly forwarded within Amazon by the company's general counsel David Zapolsky.
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” the memo says.
Zapolsky said in a statement sent to USA TODAY: “My comments were personal and emotional. I was frustrated and upset that an Amazon employee would endanger the health and safety of other Amazonians by repeatedly returning to the premises after having been warned to quarantine himself after exposure to virus Covid-19. I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me."
The memo is from a daily meeting to update Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, Vice reported. Other topics included plans to begin checking the temperature of employees and giving them masks, measures the company announced Tuesday. Amazon says it is checking 100,000 workers per day for fevers and that masks will be available at some locations by Thursday and at all locations by early next week.
Also addressed in the memo: plans to partner with a medical organization to test employees for COVID-19. "There are legitimate reasons for investing in more testing resources. Let’s not just figure out the best PR strategy. Let’s figure out what the right thing is for the country," the memo says.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union shared the text of the memo with USA TODAY.
“Amazon’s behavior is disgusting! Rather than focusing on trying to fix the serious COVID-19 safety issues which threaten their own employees, they choose instead to smear the courageous whistle-blower," RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement sent to USA TODAY.
The RWDSU and several other unions including the AFL-CIO, as well as more than 40 New York state and local public officials, called for the "swift reinstatement" of Smalls. The unions and officials also asked Amazon "to CLOSE Amazon warehouses until you put into place real solutions – with independent monitors – to protect your workers and the public in this moment of public health crisis."
Amazon has seen increased demands for delivery of products as tens of millions of Americans have stayed in their homes in attempts to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Three weeks ago, the company said it planned to hire 100,000 workers to assist with online deliveries during the pandemic and temporarily raise its minimum pay to $17 an hour. Amazon is also seeking current warehouse workers who would want to temporarily work in its Amazon Fresh and Amazon Prime Now services, loading groceries at Whole Foods, with a $2 hour pay increase.
Also on Thursday, Bezos announced a donation of $100 million to Feeding America to support the nonprofit's national network of food banks and food pantries.
Smalls posted Thursday on Twitter that more employees had tested positive at the fulfillment center. He planned a protest at the office of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in Manhattan.
Amazon "targeted me because the spotlight is on me," Smalls said in an opinion piece in The Guardian, a United Kingdom newspaper. Posed as a letter to Bezos, Smalls says, "I am getting calls from Amazon workers across the country and they all want to stage walk-outs, too. We are starting a revolution and people around the country support us."
Contributing: Jefferson Graham
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.