Q&A: Ex-Amazon Employee Chris Smalls on What’s Really Happening Inside Those Warehouses

‘It’s not the building that has the virus, it’s the people’

Chris Smalls holding a sign that says,
Smalls said Amazon has lied about its coronavirus response after firing him to silence him. Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

Key insights:

Chris Smalls, who is perhaps best known as the guy Amazon fired after organizing a walkout—or, worse, the employee Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky called “not smart or articulate” in a leaked memo—arguably already has a new career as the voice of Amazon’s warehouse workers.

Smalls has certainly brought a lot of attention to the concerns of Amazon employees: New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a statement that called his firing “immoral and inhumane,” while five U.S. senators followed with a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos to express their concerns over not only working conditions, but Amazon’s actions that include its reported plans for a smear campaign against Smalls.

Now, the Washington Post and the New York Times report Amazon has fired two additional employees—and asked another not to return after he gave his notice—after they spoke out in support.

Adweek virtually sat down with Smalls to talk about his experience inside Amazon’s warehouses, why he organized a walkout, what he makes of the company’s statements and what comes next for him.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: To start, let’s get some background on you and your role at Amazon.
Chris Smalls: I was with Amazon for almost five years. I started in 2015. Basically, I was hired as a warehouse associate making $12.75 an hour and worked hard for seven or eight months and then I got promoted up to a process assistant, which was the position I had before I got terminated. I’d been one ever since—over four years. I was in charge of operations for a department—mine was order picking. Pickers are associates who pick customer orders off of robots that drive whatever customers order to workstations before orders are packed.

My responsibility was to oversee operations—making sure it ran smoothly, that associates were able to work without issues, making sure they were assigned to the correct station and things of that nature.

Can you describe what it’s like to work for Amazon?
This is a tricky question. It depends who you work with to me. I had fun in the beginning. I met a lot of good people I’m still friends with. They’re like family to me.

The job itself is very aggressive. That’s what makes Amazon Amazon and separates it from the competition. It’s an aggressive production company. I used to tell new hires if you have a gym membership, cancel it. The job is 10 hours of calisthenics.

"I was not going to sit back and see [employees] bring back the virus to their families, so I decided to mobilize."
—Chris Smalls

We asked Amazon about the Vice story and they didn’t respond. But there have been reports in which Amazon says you were fired for violating social distancing guidelines, but you say that’s not true. So what happened?
No. 1, the guidelines didn’t exist in the month of March. Basically, we were [working alongside each other as usual] in the middle of March because the tables were still so close together despite these guidelines they claimed I violated. I was never warned multiple times.

I was placed on quarantine, but they didn’t quarantine any of my employees who I had been around for 10 hours. Why? I think they did it to silence me. They didn’t quarantine the person I drive to work with every day. They wanted to cut off the head of the snake and silence me. They singled me out and tried to make an example of me. It’s a retaliation tactic or intimidation or a combination of the two.

Why were you organizing these protests?
I did it to save my employees’ lives. The company dropped the ball on transparency. The company dropped the ball as far as protecting my employees. Multiple people were falling ill. A colleague tested positive and I said enough was enough. I took action. I tried to negotiate and beg and plead all week. I went to work on March 24 and after we learned about the first confirmed case and they told me not to tell employees, I was not on board for that. I was not going to sit back and see them bring back the virus to their families, so I decided to mobilize.

The union Make the Road New York started to support me the day after—I’m grateful for that. It opened up a new world for me as far as organizing. I realized that’s a power that’s been lacking as far as the frontlines are concerned. They did all of us a favor by exposing what capitalism looks like. I’m getting involved now and learning.

What do you want to happen?
I don’t want this to ever happen again. The frontline not being protected is unacceptable. Just like first responders, they should be protected. They risk their lives to keep the country afloat and the least they’re asking for is to be protected. I don’t think that’s a big ask. Amazon didn’t do that. On top of that, they need to offer hazard pay and sick pay.

I have friends sleeping in their cars because they have their wife and kids inside. There are employees that have lupus, bronchitis, asthma, employees that are 18, 19 that live with their parents, who say they can’t go to work and there are seniors that work there as well—they can’t work because their immune system is not strong enough. I want to make sure this never, never happens again and they’re all protected.

Amazon says it is taking “extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances.” It’s called employees heroes repeatedly and says, “Our top concern is ensuring the health and safety of our employees.” What’s your take on that?
Lies. It’s not true. It’s just not true. There are multiple cases—up to 30 cases in the Staten Island warehouse. Now they’re sending texts every time there’s a case—we’re getting bulks of these. There was one on April 9—one building in Pennsylvania had nine cases at one time. Do you know how frightening that is? Temperature taking is a waste of time. I have a friend who tested positive and had no fever. Everyone is different. One person may have a fever, but another not. The temperature-taking thing is a Band-Aid fabricated to look good for public view. It’s lies. It’s not the reality of the situation.

"You have to get sick and possibly put your life on the line to get paid? That’s ridiculous."
—Chris Smalls

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@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.