In the continuing wake over the handling of the COVID-19 crisis in America and killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other Black Americans, many workers are having frank conversations about equal work opportunities, workers rights and racial equity in the workplace.
Conversation and open dialogue are a critical part of making real change in our communities and nation. When we have honest discussions with each other, we find candor, pain, and understanding on what's really affecting us.
This article is part of ‘Leaders of Impact’ – a series brought to you by WeekenderNJ, a community project publication for the people, by the people. The series, which comprises essays and conversations over the course of this year, points to everyday individuals, community leaders and organizations, social justice and systemic racism activists – who contribute to making our communities a better place to live.
Chris Smalls, on Mon. March 8, 2021, Ridgefield Park, NJ. (Photo/Julian Leshay)
This week, I sat down with native New Jerseyan Chris Smalls; a father, former Amazon employee, and one of the Founders of ‘The Congress of Essential Workers,’ to discuss his journey leading him to become a full-time organizer against his former employer, Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world at that time.
During our candid and extensive conversation which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed workers’ rights, equity and inclusion in the workplace, why representation is important, whether Americans should be seeking change within the political system, his tenure at Amazon, the moments leading to his lawsuit against his former employer, the media, his new venture and what he learned along the way.
When COVID-19 began, Smalls asked Amazon Human Resource Management what they were doing to protect its Staten Island fulfillment center workers from COVID-19, followed by mobilizing his fellow team members, for better, safer and transparent work conditions, highlighting an ugly and unequal economy. Smalls said his employment was subsequently terminated after organizing a protest.
Amazon executives, Jay Carney, a former Yale University graduate, reporter, and press secretary in the Obama administration who is now Amazon’s SVP of global corporate affairs, mocked Smalls, and denigrated his intelligence, and David Zapolsky, a white male and Amazon General Counsel pertained to Smalls as ‘not smart, nor articulate.’
The company claims it fired Smalls, in March 2020 for violating safety procedures by continuing to come to work after having been exposed to COVID-19, despite the fact that the company says it offered to pay him to stay home for 14 days after the exposure.
Smalls’ employment termination has drawn widespread condemnation from politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocsio-Cortez, labor supporters, including the New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio who directed the Commission on Human Rights to investigate Amazon, and New York Attorney General Letitia James who said the firing was "disgraceful" and called for an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board. Retaliation against workers for engaging in collective action related to their working conditions is illegal under federal law.
Smalls, who is suing his former employer in the Eastern District of New York for discrimination and retaliation, sat down with me to tell his side of the story.
Q.: Before we talk about the events leading to March of last year, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
“I am 32 years old. Born and raised in New Jersey. My mother is a single mother, and black parent, who raised my younger brother and me. We grew up in Hackensack, located in Bergen County, New Jersey. I went to elementary, middle and highschool in Hackensack. My first passion was sports; that love led me to become a track star in highschool.
My second passion was music. This passion took me to attend college in Florida, but after one semester, the slow - paced Florida living made me realize how much I missed New Jersey, so I returned back home. I attended college in New York, where I studied sound engineering. For a few years, I’ve had a music career as a hip-hop artist in Bergen County, New Jersey and New York, where I performed numerous shows.
I got married pretty young, at 22 years old. I am no longer married, but my marriage lasted seven years. I am a father of two beautiful twins - one girl and one boy. I changed my career to take care of my family, and quickly jumped into what we call now essential worker class. Every job I had was an essential assignment.
Before I joined Amazon, in 2012 I had a union job, with tenure of approximately three years. The company was a family owned grocery distribution warehouse in Carlstadt, New Jersey. I worked the graveyard shift as the youngest employee in the company.
The management, who was predominantly white, was known for their racist comments.
One day I walked into the office and my supervisor said some pretty racist things to me. I actually had my phone on record that day; I guess I had some random thought that I should record the conversation. Later I reported to my union. We had an arbitration and I thought the union was going to take care of me, and listen to my concerns. I thought that the supervisor needed to no longer be employed, but the union only gave him a slap on his wrist. That's when I decided that the job wasn’t worth it for me to stay there for my dignity. I went to find a way out."
Q.: I would like to bring you back to a particular sensitive time in your life that changed the course of your life. Can you talk about your tenure at Amazon and the moments that led to your employment termination?
"In 2015 I accepted a job with Amazon. My mom is actually the reason why I started to work at Amazon. The company was opening a brand new building; Amazon EWR9, in Carteret, NJ. They had a hiring event that I applied for and I was hired. I put my two weeks notice and started working for Amazon right away. For seven months straight, I worked hard, and got promoted in less than a year to a supervisor position as a process assistant, part of the outbound pick department. Picking means, to pick customers items in a timely manner; within an hour you have to pick a certain quota. Back in 2015 the quota was about 250 items per hour, and I was doing twice that amount in an hour. My work ethic was unmatched for Amazon, because I was ahead of the game, coming from a distribution warehouse. I figured out a way to double my production, and I guess that helped me obtain my promotion. Everyone knew that I was a model employee. I trained a lot of team members, and I was always used as an example when team members were shown how to perform the job correctly. I loved the fact that I was being recognized for my work. It was pretty good working at Amazon in the beginning. I was excited, went above and beyond, coming to work on time, if not prior, and I don’t think I ever missed a day. I was really pro-Amazon. But that quickly changed overtime.
This was my first time supervising people, so I felt like a true leader. The first day on the job as a supervisor, my manager was on vacation for two weeks, so I had to not only do my job, but also my manager’s job. I will never forget how nervous I was. But, I embraced it. I loved the challenge. It made me think harder, and find ways to work smarter. I had a team member who was promoted at the same time with me, so we divided our department up and we both used our strengths; I took over the pickers and she took over the stores. Stores means, putting items on the shelves from the robots, and pickers, means moving the items. We became quickly the number one team in the building, while having a good time doing our jobs. It was a learning experience that helped us become better leaders. We had a lot of co-workers who started to respect the fact that we developed such a good relationship. Our team members respected me for treating them with respect, and not like a number. I treated everyone as my extended family because I got to spend 40, 50, 60 hours a week with these people. It was a rewarding experience.
By my second year at Amazon, EWR9 fully launched. It grew from 500 workers to more than 2,000 workers upon their yearly launch, which was a year later, in summer of 2016. The more the Amazon workforce began to grow larger, we started to have more personalities, people with their own agendas, more supervisors, a lot of first time workers, such as college hires, and not only New Jerseyans, but people from all over the country being brought in. This played a factor into the culture at Amazon. We had supervisors and workers that didn’t relate to our culture, which are usually urban, low-income communities such as Newark, located close to Carteret, New Jersey. It was a huge barrier for workers to relate to management. I’ve noticed that management treated workers as numbers, rather than as human beings. That was alarming for me, because that was not what I stood for. I was an entry-level worker and I’ve always related to coworkers in my department.
It was during the second year in my job that I wanted to relocate, due to the new management continuing to change for the worst, and not aligning with the type of leadership I wanted to be part of. I also didn’t feel like I had a good opportunity to move up in the company. A lot of the original managers who promoted me, respected me, and saw how hard I worked were no longer employed there as well. I had an opportunity presented to me to transfer to a brand new facility in Windsor Connecticut called BDL2 Amazon Fulfillment Center. Their management was actually training with us at EWR9 in Carteret, NJ for about three to four months. The senior manager gravitated to me, because I trained some of his best managers. He kept pitching it to me, but I refused at first because of my family. After talking it over with my wife at that time, we made a plan for me to go to Connecticut for a four-day workweek, and return back home to New Jersey for a three-day weekend. Amazon was offering a $10,000 relocation fee to those moving 50 miles or more. I accepted the transfer moved to Connecticut and I started working at BDL2. That’s when everything turned for the worst. It was probably the worst decision of my life.
There were five or six of my teammates from Carteret, NJ who made the transfer as well, so I wasn’t alone. One of them was a friend of mine whom I’m still friends' with today.
We began to help the 2017 launch of the BDL2 building. The managers in Connecticut told us to forget everything we’ve learned in New Jersey. That diminished our leadership skills and we were now put in a position where we had no chance to move up. Which I thought was wrong at the time. Our perception was that we'd transfer to Connecticut and quickly be promoted to the same employment capacity. And that didn’t happen. We were actually targeted. The supervisors at the same level as us were making $15.00 an hour, while we were making $18.75 in New Jersey. A lot of supervisors didn’t like the fact that we were there. I remember being written up, getting final warnings, for doing my job, for no apparent reason, and there was one incident where I was terminated for allegedly stealing two minutes of company time. I was out of a job for about three weeks, where I had to do an Amazon appeal’s process. Thankfully, the decision of my termination was overturned and I was reinstated. To add to my luck, my one-year contract was up, right when Amazon was set to do a brand new launch in Staten Island, New York in 2018. I’ve put in the transfer to move to Staten Island, and now I was going to be paid a $10,000 transfer to move back home. Amazon did not make that transfer easy. I was removed from the transfer list and wasn’t allowed to transfer back home. I had to file an ethics report with the corporate. It was an extensive investigation, and eventually I got the transfer. But, it wasn’t the transfer that I wanted. They threw me to the wolves. I was given two ultimatums; I could transfer to JFK8 Amazon Fulfillment Center in Staten Island, NY as an entry level, which was so disrespectful, after working for three years with this company and being a supervisor. I’ve told them ‘hell no’ and ‘you guys need to renegotiate this, or I will address it back with corporate.’ A few days later I was transferred with the same position, but RT, meaning a position of 12 hour of overnight work on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays nights. My hours were also reduced to 36 hours, but leaving me with no other choice but to accept this position. What they didn’t realize was the fact that they were giving me a raise with this transfer. Working night shifts and weekends, meant getting paid two dollars more per hour, and because JFK8 is the highest paid building in the Amazon network, I went from making $18.00 an hour to making $25 an hour."
Q.: Were you given an explanation as of why you couldn’t transfer again?
"No. There was no explanation. When I was reinstated, they couldn’t fire me, as it would have been wrongful termination, so instead they wanted to make my life miserable, but didn’t realize that it would take more than a graveyard shift. I am a very strong-minded person, and have been through so much in my life, that it’s going to take more than a graveyard shift to make my life miserable. I’ve been working many graveyard shifts growing up."
Q.: What was it like working at JFK8 Amazon Fulfillment Center in Staten Island, NY?
"Personally, my marriage came to an end. But work wise I remained focused on working that graveyard shift for eight months. I helped launch the building at JFK8, but I’ve never had a fair shot. Months later, I found out from my manager at that time that there was a nasty email sent before I even set foot on the JFK8’s grounds, boycotting me. The email said that I’m an insubordinate supervisor, and hard to work with. I had no chance from the start at JFK8. I didn’t even know all this was happening behind the scenes. My manager respected me so much that he told me the truth. I was working extremely hard towards a promotion, and I’ve never gotten the opportunity. After eight month of hard work with the same work hours, my team became the first team in the building, setting building records. I applied for a management interview and I was denied for no apparent reason. I was disappointed and thought about resigning, but I stood by the company. Instead I’ve decided to transfer to the day shift, which I was already familiar with, because there were more supervisors during the day that could notice my hard work. I was given no support, but I knew this job better than a lot of people, and with my team, and we became number one again.
During the next quarter, I thought I had a great chance of being promoted, but I was denied again. The hard part was watching someone who was in the same role as me for only six months being promoted ahead of me, although, I was a supervisor for four years at that time. She was a white woman and her interview was totally different than mine. When I asked her how her interview went, she said it went nice, real quick and she was only asked a few questions. I asked her if she took the math test, and she said that no math test was given to her. In my case, I was given a math test on the spot with 15 minutes time, without a calculator and a complicated test that I knew I was not going to pass. I’ve asked numerous people who took the test if they were asked to take a math test, and none of them did. I was the only one given that test. I knew it was a set up, because they wanted to fail me. They didn’t want to promote me. As soon as I started to raise concerns with HR, the head of HR at the time told my manager in secrecy that I had a history of raising concerns, referring to the email sent a year ago. And that was so far from the truth. I’ve been doing nothing but my job since I transferred to Staten Island. The stigma of that email destroyed my career at Amazon. It didn’t matter what I did, nor how many merits I had. I had no chance of a promotion at Amazon. It took me four and a half years to realize that. That was the moment I mentally checked out of my job and was ready to resign. Amazon has this thing called ‘the offer,’ where after each year anniversary, if you resign you are being given one thousand dollars, but it maxes out at your five year anniversary. At my fifth-year anniversary, I was going to resign and take my five thousand dollars and leave the company. If you leave the company this way, Amazon can no longer employ you ever again. I was ready to do just that. But, COVID-19 came to play and everything changed.
Late February early March I was watching TV in the break room and it was that time where a lot of seniors in nursing homes in Seattle were dying from COVID-19 and I was very alarmed. I was scared, asking myself ‘what if it comes to New York?’ ‘How are we going to defend ourselves?’ ‘How are we going to protect ourselves?’ 'We should start preparing now.' I went to HR asking questions regarding COVID-19 and the responses received were ‘Yes, we are following it.’ ‘We are following the CDC’s guidelines.’
I’ve noticed people in my department getting sick, people calling out a lot. Something was going on and something needed to be done about it. As a divorced parent, I have 50% custody of my kids. I don’t want to bring this virus home to my children. I asked HR again what Amazon is going to do to protect their employees, from senior citizens to people with underlying health conditions. The response I received from HR was ‘if you don’t feel safe, you can stay home with no pay.’ In response I said ‘OK, that’s one way of doing this. But how are you going to take care of our financial responsibilities?’ The HR response was to apply for the Amazon relief fund. At the time that is still a funny joke; Amazon raised 25 Million dollars. Why they raised this money, when they already had the money, I don’t know, but they raised 25 Million dollars as a relief fund for workers to apply for if they felt like they needed to stay home. They would receive up to $5,000 per worker. I stood home and applied for it, but was denied. What I wasn’t told was that in order to receive the money, you were supposed to contract the virus and prove that you had COVID-19. I didn’t even know if I had the virus, because New York became the epicenter at that time and I couldn’t get a test. I’ve started sending our emails starting with the New York City Mayor, Governor, Senators, and local media, but I didn’t receive any responses.
On March 24th, I couldn’t afford to stay home, so I was forced to return back to work. My colleague who I work closely with was physically sick. She had a mask on, but her eyes were red. I remembered a news segment where they said that could be a symptom for COVID-19, so I’ve told her that she needs to go home. She told me that she got tested the day before, which meant that she had to have severe symptoms in order to be able to receive a test."
Q: How was she allowed to return to work without a COVID-19 test result?
“At Amazon you were allowed to return back to work until you received your results from the doctor. Amazon policy should have said ‘don’t come back to work until you receive your results.’ But instead they said ‘come back to work until we receive the results from the doctor,’ which can take a number of days.
Thank god I sent her home. She was working ten hours shifts talking to hundreds of people face to face. I know this, because I was in the same position and I know what her job entails. That day she listened to me and she went home. Days later, she tested positive for COVID-19.
Earlier in the day, before I sent her home, we were in a meeting where we learned for the first time of a previous COVID-19 case two weeks prior. In this meeting, the managers and their supervisors told me not to tell anyone, that somebody in my department tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago. I asked them; if they were kidding and told them we need to close this building down immediately. I was told ‘no, it is business as usual. We don’t want to cause panic.’
That was my last day working for Amazon. I left around lunchtime with my colleague who I drive to work every day. We drove back to my house, and started making phone calls. We called the CDC, the Governor's office, sending out emails, and trying to get in contact with the media. I was able to connect with the New York Post. The New York post said they would publish an article, but will have to get back to me. That was the only glimmer of hope I had at that time.
My colleague and I decided to go back to Amazon, but not to work, but to tell workers the truth. We both went back the rest of the week, from March 25 to the 28th. We sat in the cafeteria 10 hours a day telling every worker that came into the cafeteria the truth. We marched every morning into the Manager's office with 10 - 15 people disrupting their meetings, letting them know we want this building to be closed, cleaned and professionally sanitized before we return for a minimum of two weeks and requesting to be paid while we are staying home. That was our basic demand. There was nothing extreme. It was reasonable. To close the building, disinfect and for us to return to work when it was safe to do so.
Instead of listening to us, we were given directions to sit in the cafeteria off the clock six feet apart, until Friday when I was fed up with doing this and losing a week's pay. I went into the HR office and expressed my anger and frustration to the head manager and HR. I asked what they were doing, as this building needed to be closed and sanitized.
The next day when I returned to Amazon, that’s when I was approached and told that ‘we are going to place you on quarantine because you came in contact with somebody.’ I said, ‘I’ve already told you that she texted positive two days ago, when she texted me and told me her results came in and it was positive. Not only am I not the only one supposed to be placed in quarantine, but everyone in my department, including you guys, because I’ve been coming into your office every day.’ That was my response.
I was told that I was the only one supposed to be placed in quarantine. Not the person I drive to work with every day, not my department, not HR who I’ve been in contact with. Just me. That right there was an indication that they wanted me to stop organizing workers and tell them the truth. They were looking to get me out of the way.
I did listen. I told them I would go home and quarantine. But little did they know that I was going to go home and start planning the protest for Monday, March 30th. I’ve told the New York Post I’m going to have a protest and they published the article right away. From that article being published it was a domino effect. Every major media outlet started contacting me.
I knew how the media operates; they wanted to know how many people and wanted to make sure this is a really big story. So, I had to sell that. I had to make sure that I was giving them a number that was going to bring them out. I told them about one hundred people, maybe two hundred."
Q.: Do I understand correctly that you made that number up?
“Of course. I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t an organizer. I was a supervisor. But I was a smart supervisor. I knew I had to play the game, and I knew I had to be two steps ahead. I knew Amazon started to send workers home voluntarily. That didn’t make sense to me. They found out about my protest and were trying to reduce the workforce, so they wouldn’t be there during my protest. I played their game, continued to use my quarantine to plan the protest for Monday, the busiest day at Amazon.
I had to give the media what they wanted, so I planned the protest for lunchtime. The media wanted a walk out, and on a nice sunny day Amazon workers like to eat lunch outside. Perception is everything; at 12:35PM you saw hundreds of workers walking out of the building. A good portion of them did participate in the walk out.
I definitely played the media, and I played Amazon at the same time. I am not afraid to admit that; I did what I had to do to get my story told. Not just my story, but also all of our stories and get our voices heard. On that day I accomplished that. Two hours after the protest, that’s when I was fired over the phone. I was catapulted into the media again, not knowing that it would be world wide, international news.
What made things worse, a week later Jeff Bezos and his General Counsel, David Zapolsky had a meeting to smear me, calling me ‘not smart, nor articulate,’ and ironically wanted to make me the face of the whole unionizing movement.”
Q: How did that make you feel?
"That was what motivated me to become a full time activist and organizer. It made me feel enraged at the fact that this man who I poured sweat and blood into this company, making him richer and richer, pretty much didn’t give a damn about my life, my children's life, my family’s life, my livelihood. I was unemployed with no health insurance, and he just smeared me. That motivated me to fight even harder. To prove them wrong."
Q.: Looking back at your former Amazon supervisors & executives - do you believe that Jeff Bezos, as your employer at that time, should have invited you to hold a dialogue with you about your working conditions?
"He should have at least acknowledged that we’ve had real concerns. I don’t care to talk to the man. I lost a lot of respect for him anyway. It would have been a difficult conversation for me. I keep it real. I don’t think he would have been able to handle my type of realism. But, it would have been at least nice if he would have listened to our concerns and actually took them into consideration. I realize that’s not part of Billionaires agendas, to listen to people who are making $35,000 a year after taxes. Do I feel like he should have had a conversation with me? Sure. Why not? But, do I feel like he would have actually listened to us. I don’t think so. He doesn’t accumulate 88 Billion dollars by listening to workers. He puts profits above people. To this day, he refuses to close this building down, and as a result people have died. I said it in the beginning; the blood is on their hands, and I’ll say it now - the blood is on their hands.
Unfortunately, the colleague I sent home, her relative that she lives with passed away from COVID-19. Workers from this facility also passed away from COVID-19. This is their fault.
Bezos could have helped. He could have done something. He refused. So, here we are eleven months later still dealing with COVID-19, still hundreds of cases in that building now."
Q: I want to briefly talk to you about the lawsuit against Amazon. One of the resolutions is for Amazon to reinstate you in your old job. Would you like to go back to your old job?
"I want to be reinstated so that I can resign. I feel that I deserve a chance to resign and get that termination on my record. I wouldn’t work for this man ever again in my life. I don’t want to work for a machine. I want to work for a CEO that actually cares about his employees. I only want to be reinstated, to hand over my resignation.
From the lawsuit that came out this morning (February 17), there are over 250 cases in that building. That is so alarming. I feel like that number is even low. I feel there is even more than that. This tells you that I was telling the truth this entire time. Amazon placing me on quarantine was a retaliation tactic and even their own HR representatives, according to the lawsuit their own HR who I know very well, didn’t agree with my firing. That HR person put something in writing saying they did not agree with my firing. This means that there was someone higher up the ladder that made that decision to have me fired. Possibly Jeff Bezos himself. Possible. That’s the most alarming thing."
Q.: What is it like to stand up against the richest man in the world at that time?
"Going back to last year. I had a lot of Bullshit that I had to battle. I had to battle depression. I had to battle loneliness. Battle the fact that the entire world fell into my lap in 24 hours. I had to battle the fact that this is new territory for me. I had to battle on how to become an organizer. It was mixed emotions. It wasn’t until I started to receive a lot of love and support from people reaching out from all over the world that never met me that lifted up my spirits. They’ve told me they stand with me. They support me. I embraced the moment. I embraced the platform. Ironically, Amazon prepared me for this for the last four years. I was a leader at my job. I was thrown into fire over and over again. Each time, overcoming it. I looked at this as another opportunity to do so. And that’s what I did."
Q.: Amazon was founded in 1994, however it took the company about 27 years to add the first Black executive to Bezo’s inner circle, per Black Enterprise. Alicia Boler Davis, who was serving as Amazon’s vice president of Global Customer Fulfillment, has become the fourth and only Black member to join Bezos’ senior team, known as the S-team.” What are your thoughts of Davis being the first black employee to join Bezos senior team in summer of 2020?
"She was promoted right after George Floyd murder, as a token to make them look like Amazon is diverse and that they care about black women, black men, and black children. It’s a false narrative. She’s going to have no say. No power. No voice. She’s going to be used as a pawn on that S-team. She’s not going to resonate with the workers in the warehouses. We’ve had very little communications with any of these people in Seattle. If I were she I would take my talent somewhere else, where she actually would be recognized. Not just as a token black woman that’s going to be surrounded by predominant white people and white men.
They are also past due, after 27 years. I’ve had my own experiences. I didn’t get promoted after being in the same position for four years. It only takes two years to become a manager at Amazon