A judge has ruled that Amazon should reinstate a former warehouse employee fired in the early days of the pandemic, saying the company “illegally” terminated a worker who led a protest asking Amazon to do more to protect employees from COVID-19.
The dispute between Gerald Bryson, who worked at an Amazon warehouse in New York City, Staten Island, has raged since June 2020, when Bryson filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming Amazon retaliated against him.
Later that year, the NLRB said it found merit in Bryson’s complaint that Amazon had unlawfully fired him because of his workplace regulation. Amazon did not accept the findings, and the Federal Council filed a formal complaint against the company, which led to lengthy administrative court proceedings.
On Monday, Administrative Law Judge Benjamin Green said Amazon should offer Bryson his job, as well as lost wages and benefits resulting from his “discriminatory layoff.” Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said in a statement that the company would appeal the ruling.
“We strongly disagree with this ruling and are surprised that the NLRB would want any employer to condone Mr. Bryson’s behaviour,” said Nantel. Bryson was fired for bullying, slandering and defaming a female co-worker for blowing a horn in front of her workplace. We do not tolerate this type of behavior in our workplace and intend to file an appeal with the NLRB.”
Bryson first participated in a March 2020 protest over working conditions led by Chris Smalls, another warehouse employee who was fired by the online retail giant He headed the Amazon Workers Union, the start-up group that won a union election earlier this month at the Amazon facility where the two men worked.
After Smalls was fired, Bryson led another protest in April 2020 in front of the warehouse. While down from work during a protest, Bryson got into a feud with another worker. He was later fired for violating Amazon’s vulgar language policy.
Court filings provide an account of the altercation between Bryson and an employee. The recording of their dispute detailed by the NLRB showed both Bryson and the woman using profanity during a heated exchange that lasted several minutes. The agency’s account shows that the woman initiated the exchange, and twice tried to provoke Bryson into a physical altercation with her, which he did not do. The woman was given a ‘first warning’.
The woman also asked Bryson, who is black, to “go back to the Bronx,” something the judge said Bryson could interpret as “racist” because he’s African American and might wonder why, other than his race, he was assumed to be from the Bronx.
Bryson learned that he had reported this comment to the Amazon manager he spoke to about the incident. The director denied that Bryson made a racist comment. But the judge backed Bryson’s account, saying it was unlikely he would “fail to convey such a notable remark to which he had such a strong reaction.”
In his ruling, the judge said Amazon rushed to the verdict and continued a “deviant investigation” into an argument designed to blame only Bryson for the incident, adding that the company wanted to absolve Bryson of his “protected coordinated activity rather than a fair assessment” of what happened.
In its investigation into the melee, Green said Amazon “preferred not to obtain information from someone who was protesting with Bryson even though that person was likely in the best position to explain what happened.”
Instead, he said, the numerous witness accounts of the incident given by the company were “one-sided” coincidence, adding that he found it implausible that the statements had been made “unless such accounts were obtained from them”.
The NLRB had also pushed for Bryson’s reinstatement in a federal lawsuit filed last month., using a provision of the National Labor Relations Act that allows it to seek interim relief in federal court while the case is going through the administrative law process. Amazon used the case as one of its objections to the Staten Island election resultsaccusing the agency of distorting the vote by pursuing the reinstatement of Bryson in the run-up to the election.
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