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Woman files complaint against Amazon, says company fired her for raising workplace concerns amid pandemic

Virus Outbreak-Amazon
Posted at 2:26 PM, May 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-07 21:15:30-04

DENVER – A former Amazon employee in Colorado has filed a complaint with the state’s Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) against the company, alleging the country’s biggest online retailer fired her for raising concerns about workplace safety at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Linda Rodriguez, who worked at the company’s DEN3 Fulfillment Center in Thornton, started raising concerns about the company’s COVID-19 policies and practices in early June of last year after becoming concerned with Amazon’s “systematic failure to comply with even the most basic safety precautions necessary to protect her and her coworkers from exposure to the virus,” according to the complaint filed on her behalf by TOWARDS JUSTICE and SWAIN LAW, LLC.

The complaint states Amazon did little at the beginning of the pandemic to care for its employees at the fulfillment center in Thornton. It states the company did not provide face masks to its employees until May 2020 but once they were provided, they were not required to be worn when employees were clustered before clocking into work and having their temperatures screened. The complaint also alleges employees were required to rush “frantically through their work, without physical distancing and without washing their hands or sanitizing their workstations” to meet Amazon’s strict productivity quotas, and that the company not only failed to notify workers about possible exposure to the virus, but openly discouraged them from discussing confirmed infections at the fulfillment center.

Additionally, the complaint filed on Rodriguez’s behalf states Amazon did little to provide important COVID-19 health and safety information to many of its monolingual workers, some of whom speak little to no English.

“As a result, Spanish-speaking employees often missed out on crucial safety warnings, such as Amazon’s instructions for employees not to clock in and enter the facility if they had been experiencing COVID-19 symptoms,” reads the complaint.

It also states that “by providing COVID safety and health information in English exclusively — even though Amazon provided its workers with information in Spanish when necessary to Amazon’s bottom line — Amazon was able to maintain pressure on its Spanish-speaking workers to continue attending work even if they felt sick,” which undermined “effective contract tracing of cases involving Spanish-speaking workers... who were pressured to simply swipe in and begin working."

Documents show Rodriguez began to raise the alarm about Amazon’s response to the pandemic to her supervisors and the human resources department when the company failed to notify her that she had been exposed to the virus by a coworker who tested positive after being sent home sick – something she found out through a text from a close colleague at the fulfillment center.

The complaint alleges Rodriguez first talked to a supervisor to ask about Amazon’s failure to notify her about her co-worker’s positive test, that the employee’s workstation had not been properly cleaned, and that another employee was immediately re-assigned to the station.

The complaint states Rodriguez then went to a human resource lead who “reacted…. with explosive anger” and allegedly told her the only option she had if she was concerned about her health was to take an unpaid leave of absence.

Throughout the months of June and July, Rodriguez continued to report some of the failures that were happening at the Amazon fulfillment center, which she felt were putting her colleagues – in particular, immigrant workers and workers of color – at greater risk, including: Failures to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing, overall lack of cleaning at the facility – especially work stations used by employees known to have tested positive for COVID-19, lack of available cleaning supplies, incorrect information being provided by human resources about the company’s contact tracing and leave policies, and the company’s failure to provide COVID-19-related Spanish-language instructions and communications to employees who did not speak English, the complaint reads.

The documents reveal her concerns either went unheard or were met with anger.

In Aug. 2020, Rodriguez began documenting her safety complaints in writing – first by sending an email on Aug. 10 to human resources manager Kat Gordon, and then sending a written memorandum to one of her supervisors a few days later.

As her concerns continued to go unheard, Rodriguez decided on Aug. 22 that she would need to escalate her complaint to a higher-level human resources employee, and asked a supervisor for a contact, or else she would take her concerns to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The supervisor then told Rodriguez she would work on getting a contact for a higher-level human resources manager.

Two days later, on Aug. 24, Amazon suspended Rodriguez mid-shift citing “time theft.” Four days later, on Aug. 28, Rodriguez was fired.

The complaint states that in one such incident of time theft, Rodriguez asked for permission to take a quick break while on the clock because she was feeling sick. In another, Amazon claims time theft occurred after Rodriguez stepped out when trying to talk to one of Amazon’s human resources employees as that employee was leaving the building.

The complaint states that after her termination and in a filing with the Colorado Civil Rights Division (CCRD), “Amazon admitted that Ms. Rodriguez had permission to step outside and was not actually engaged in “time theft” on this occasion.”

Additionally, the complaint states, Amazon admitted in its CCRD filing that “it first began scrutinizing Ms. Rodriguez’s time records on August 13, 2020 — just three days after Ms. Rodriguez sent a written complaint about her COVID-19 concerns to Human Resources Manager Kat Gordon.”

“Amazon contrived the “time theft” narrative because Ms. Rodriguez spoke up to protect herself, her coworkers, and the public generally from COVID-19,” the complaint states, adding that “Amazon targeted Ms. Rodriguez for termination because she dared to complain about the company’s pandemic response failures.”

Per Colorado’s Public Health Emergency Whistleblower (“PHEW”) Act, which was enacted in the summer of 2020, employers are prohibited from retaliating or “taking any adverse action against workers who undertake a variety of protected activities to speak out about workplace practices regarding public health emergencies like COVID-19.”

“Here, there can be no question that Ms. Rodriguez engaged in protected activity under PHEW on multiple occasions in the short period of time before she was abruptly fired for pretextual reasons,” the complaint reads.

The attorneys representing Rodriguez asked the court to find that Amazon had violated Colorado’s Public Health Emergency Whistleblower law and award her all available lost wages and other damages and remedies.

“Amazon may be one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world, it made a lot of that money during the pandemic when workers like me were working 60-hour weeks doing brutal and dangerous work inside its warehouses,” Rodriguez said in a prepared statement Friday. “I saw that Amazon was scared of me speaking out for myself and my co-workers. It intimidated me and ultimately fired me when I raised my voice, but I’m not backing down. I’m going to keep speaking out about this company, no matter how powerful and rich they are. And I hope other workers hear me.”

An Amazon spokesperson responded to the claims in a statement Friday, saying Rodriguez was fired for timecard fraud or “time theft.”

“On at least a half dozen occasions over a ten-day period, Ms. Rodriguez clocked in and then either left the building or failed to report to her work assignment. When interviewed, with just one exception, Ms. Rodriguez did not deny the allegations nor was she able to justify them. These events were confirmed by time records, video evidence, and security badge scans.”

The company did not answer Denver7’s questions about the procedure for informing non-English speakers about its COVID-19 protocols or about the company’s policies surrounding sick employees and contact tracing.

Denver7's Sloan Dickey contributed to this report.