Skip to content

An Amazon Vice President Quit Over Firings of Employees Who Protested

A prominent engineer and vice president of Amazon’s cloud computing arm said on Monday that he had quit “in dismay” over the recent firings of workers who had raised questions about workplace safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tim Bray, an engineer who had been a vice president of Amazon Web Services, wrote in a blog post that his last day at the company was on Friday. He criticized a number of recent firings by Amazon, including that of an employee in a Staten Island warehouse, Christian Smalls, who led a protest in March calling for the company to provide workers with more protections.

Mr. Smalls’s firing has drawn the scrutiny of New York State’s attorney general.

Mr. Bray also criticized the firing last month of two Amazon employees, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, who circulated a petition in March on internal email lists that called on Amazon to expand sick leave, hazard pay and child care for warehouse workers. They had also helped organize a virtual event for warehouse employees to speak to tech workers at the company about its workplace conditions and coronavirus response.

Credit…Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

Mr. Bray, who had worked for the company for more than five years, called the fired workers whistle-blowers, and said that firing them was “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture.”

“I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison,” he wrote.

Amazon declined to comment on Monday. The company had previously said it fired Mr. Smalls because he had violated its policies by leaving a quarantine — he had previously been exposed to a sick worker — to attend the protest at the site.

Amazon told Ms. Costa and Ms. Cunningham that they had violated a policy that forbids Amazon workers from asking their co-workers to donate to causes or sign petitions.

Mr. Bray had previously worked at Google and Sun Microsystems and is one of the architects of XML, a markup language developed more than 20 years ago that has been used extensively to code web pages.

He said in an email that he did not have any specific goals in mind when he wrote the blog post and that he did not expect it to receive much attention.

“I’m a blogger and I share the story of my life when I think it might interest or help others,” he said.

Employees have protested at several Amazon facilities, saying they feel unsafe and fear warehouses have been contaminated with the coronavirus. Other employees are demanding better pay or more sick leave.

Last month, Amazon came under fire after leaked notes, published by Vice News, showed Amazon’s top lawyer saying that Mr. Smalls could be portrayed as inarticulate and discussing strategy for making him out to be the face of the worker movement.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, both of New Jersey, have written to Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, to express concern about warehouse safety.

The company has rolled out various safety measures at its warehouses across the country, such as temperature checks and mandatory masks.

Mr. Bray acknowledged in his blog post that Amazon was prioritizing warehouse safety. But he said he also believed the workers.

“At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response,” he wrote. “It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.”

Amazon Web Services, the division in which Mr. Bray worked, is one of the world’s leading cloud computing providers and, according to analysts, the most valuable part of Amazon. The business grew 33 percent, to $10.2 billion in sales in the latest quarter.

The company said last week that online shopping during the pandemic drove sales at Amazon to $75.5 billion in the quarter, up 26 percent from a year earlier and surpassing analyst expectations. But profit fell 29 percent, to $2.5 billion, due in part to the cost of keeping workers safe.

Mr. Bezos said in a statement last week that the company expected to make around $4 billion in operating profit in the next quarter. But he said Amazon expected “to spend the entirety of that $4 billion, and perhaps a bit more, on Covid-related expenses getting products to customers and keeping employees safe.”