Amazon vice-president and distinguished engineer Tim Bray announced that he has left the company due to Amazon’s firing of warehouse workers who complained about unsafe conditions due to COVID-19.
That was an expensive decision, thanks to tech salaries and stock options.
Leaving Amazon will cost him “over a million pre-tax dollars,” Bray said.“May 1st was my last day as a VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services, after five years and five months of rewarding fun,” Bray wrote. “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.”
Bray says that Amazon employees Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, Bashir Mohammed and Chris Smalls were fired for promoting a petition asking for more protection for employees. Amazon sees it differently, with a spokesperson telling me via email that “we support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies. We terminated these employees for repeatedly violating internal policies.”
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Amazon warehouse employees are still working through the pandemic, playing a vital role in enabling food delivery as well as delivery of all the other products Amazon offers.
That’s dangerous work when there’s a deadly virus around.
Amazon has been working on better protection for employees, including making over 150 process changes, the company says, and building its own COVID-19 testing lab. But Amazon employees have been contracting COVID-19, and the first known fatality of an Amazon warehouse worker was on April 15.
Amazon is not alone in this: employees at Fedex and other essential service companies and government organizations have died from Coronavirus.
Bray says he cannot stand by and watch:
“Remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned.”
An important part of the story is the variance between the different parts of the company: tech workers versus worker bees in factories and distribution centers. The tech workers, including those at Amazon Web Services where Bray worked, are well paid and well treated, largely. It’s white-collar — or, given tech dress codes, no collar — work.
The distribution centers? Very different.
“[AWS] workers have power,” Bray says. “The average pay is very high, and anyone who’s unhappy can walk across the street and get another job paying the same or better … the warehouse workers are weak and getting weaker, what with mass unemployment and (in the US) job-linked health insurance. So they’re gonna get treated like crap.”
Ultimately, it’s about power balances, he says.
It’s a largely untold story of the COVID-19 era: how much we owe the people who can’t do their jobs from the safety of their home offices but are risking their lives to keep the fabric of civilization alive.
That’s something Vonage founder Jeff Pulver made pains to make clear when I asked him, in a recent TechFirst podcast, what he was looking forward to, post COVID-19:
“To never forgetting how grateful we all should be to the people who took care of us now. To everyone on the front lines. That the people who are just doing their job and saving lives should not be forgotten. The people who’ve died doing their jobs and everyone who’s doing everything possible to make all those ecosystems run. The doctors and nurses, the emergency workers, the policemen, the firemen, as well as people going to doing their jobs at work, at running the grocery stores, providing gas, providing infrastructure. Everybody needs not to be forgotten, because it’s because of them we’re going to be able to get out of this and go forward.”