Amazon Faces A New Opponent: Some Of Its Own Tech Employees

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Angel Au-Yeung   Forbes U.S. Staff

Amazon

When Tim Bray, an engineer and vice president at Amazon’s cloud computing division, quit and wrote a blog post on Monday detailing why he left his high-paying position, he became part of a group of Amazon tech workers who’ve become disillusioned and uncomfortable with working for one of the most valuable companies in the world. 

But Bray is far from the only vice president at Amazon who’s upset with its leadership. Maren Costa, a user experience designer who was fired by Amazon in April shortly after organizing a video event with warehouse workers, tells Forbes that over forty Amazon employees and executives have quietly reached out to her since she was fired.  “There are execs who are contacting me saying, ‘I support you, but I’m not willing to go public with that because I have too much on the line,’” says Costa. “For every one of them that even contacts me, how many more are there?”

Bray, the most senior Amazon executive to leave the company, was angry with how Amazon has operated during the pandemic and went into detail about it in his blog post. “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19,” wrote Bray, whose last day at Amazon was May 1. “Firing whistleblowers isn’t just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the function of free markets. It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.” 

The whistleblowers named in Bray’s post who were fired in recent weeks for speaking out include warehouse workers Chris Smalls and Bashir Mohammed, as well as former Amazon tech employees like Costa and Emily Cunningham, who was also a user experience designer at the company.

Bray is by far the highest-ranking Amazon employee to publicly come out against his former employer during the coronavirus pandemic. According to Bray’s blog, quitting has cost him over $1 million (pre-tax) worth of unvested Amazon shares, but “remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned.” 

Tech employees are speaking out for their blue-collar counterparts partly because the warehouse workers asked them to. Costa, who had been at the company for 15 years before she was fired, says warehouse workers reached out in March to the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ), an internal group she co-founded two years ago, for help and support during the pandemic. 

“Tech workers are ‘a valued resource,’” Costa says. “They [Amazon management] see us as less expendable than warehouse workers because they know they can’t just throw more bodies at our seats if we leave. We have more leverage, and that’s why tech workers have much more privilege and have that much more responsibility to speak out.” 

AECJ organized a one-hour video call in mid-April during which warehouse workers could speak to Amazon tech employees who were interested to hear from them directly.

The invite was sent out via Amazon’s internal e-mail system on Friday, April 10. “It got 1,550 accepts on a Friday afternoon, when New York, Europe and India were already off the clock,” Costa said. “Amazon deleted the e-mail, pulled the event off people’s calendars, and fired me and Emily [Cunningham] within hours.” (Cunningham also worked as a user experience designer at Amazon and is one of the core members of AECJ). A spokesman for Amazon said the two women were fired for “repeatedly violating internal policies.”

After getting fired, Costa and Cunningham have continued organizing. They planned the Amazon Sick Out for April 24, during which tech employees were encouraged to call in sick to protest the warehouse working conditions. One tech worker from Germany who had already put in a resignation letter and planned to work until the end of May, was put on early “garden leave” after this worker, who asked to remain anonymous, sent out an email to thousands of Amazon employees promoting the Sick Out. 

“I resigned because I could not work for this company anymore,” the German tech employee says. “I am an activist in my free time and the contradiction between my beliefs and my job were becoming unbearable. I was just too sad and angry coming to work every morning.”

According to AECJ, more than 500 tech workers participated in the Sick Out. In an April 24 statement, Amazon said, “The fact is that today all but a handful of our 800,000+ employees around the world came to work as usual to continue delivering on behalf of customers. Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get the critical items they need in this crisis. Health and safety is our top priority and our focus remains on protecting associates in our operations network with extensive measures including distributing face masks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, implementing temperature checks, operating with strict social distancing protocols, and recognizing their contributions with additional pay and leading benefits.”

Its stock has climbed 28% since mid-March, when parts of the country first began shelter orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Its market cap hit an all-time high of $1.2 trillion on May 1. 

Amazon has listened and responded to protests from warehouse and tech workers with changes like temporarily increasing wages by $2 per hour until May 16 and implementing new safety measures at its distribution sites. The Amazonians, as the company calls its employees, however, want more, including a permanent increase in hourly wages, more transparency in its COVID-19 reporting, annual paid sick leave and more. 

Despite the chasm in pay and treatment between Amazon warehouse workers and tech employees today, it was not always like this, says Costa. In the late 1990s, Seattle-based tech employees would pile into cars, buses and planes to head to one of Amazon’s largest fulfillment centers in Fernley, Nevada to help pack items into boxes for the Christmas rush. Tech workers “would stand shoulder to shoulder with warehouse workers picking, boxing, gift wrapping and shipping Christmas presents. Jeff Bezos would even be there,” says Costa, who was not at Amazon at the time but heard about this holiday tradition from Amazonians who were.

It’s getting harder to imagine Bezos, the richest man in the world, packing boxes now at any Amazon warehouse. On April 9 he shared an Instagram post of his visit to a fulfillment center and a Whole Foods market (Amazon purchased the grocery chain for $13.7 billion in 2017), waving hello to his employees from a distance. 

The Amazon founder is known for ending every single annual shareholder letter since 1997 with the statement that “it remains Day 1” for the company.  “Jeff Bezos is so proud of saying it’s still Day 1, that’s his mantra,” says Costa. But with this new wave of challenges from its own employees, Costa thinks otherwise. “These are all classic earmarks of a company planted on Day 2.” 

 

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Angel Au-Yeung   Forbes U.S. Staff

I am a staff writer at Forbes Magazine.