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A five-year Amazon employee who was fired in March after staging a small walkout over conditions at a Staten Island warehouse has placed himself at the center of a debate about the treatment of workers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Chris Smalls quickly gained the media spotlight after calling for Amazon's JFK8 fulfillment center to be shut down for deep cleaning and accusing the corporation of lying about how many workers have tested positive for the virus.
"We weren't able to shut down the building per se, but people heard us," Smalls told FOX Business after he was terminated. "I got emails and texts and phone calls from all over the nation calling me a hero for speaking up because people are afraid … They did me a favor letting me go. I would have never returned to that building."
An Amazon spokesperson said Smalls was terminated for "violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk," including by coming on site for the walkout on Monday. He came in contact with a coworker who tested positive for coronavirus last week and was asked to stay home, but Smalls said he had much less contact with that coworker than some of his fellow employees.
Amazon employees hold a protest and walkout over conditions at the company’s Staten Island distribution facility on March 30 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
"I didn't violate any safety guidelines. When were these implemented?" Smalls said. "As far as the quarantine, what gives Amazon medical expertise? Who's making these decisions on who gets quarantined? What is their definition of close contact?"
Smalls, a father of three, said he had opened three Amazon facilities in the New York tri-state area. A coalition of unions including AFL-CIO called for his "swift reinstatement" in a letter last week.
"These accusations are simply unfounded," an Amazon spokesperson said in response to the letter. "Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams."
The spokesperson added that Amazon has "implemented a broad suite of new benefits changes for employees in our operations and logistics network throughout this unprecedented pandemic" including an additional $2 for hourly pay, double overtime pay and two weeks of paid time-off for employees who self-quarantine.