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COVID-19 and Amazon: You Are Fired! — Health and Safety in the Workplace vs The Right of Association

By Eliab Taïrou and Marianne Poliquin, from our Labour and Employment Law Group

April 3, 2020 — In case you missed it, it was reported in the news that on March 30, 2020, Amazon had fired a New York warehouse worker who had led a walkout on the same day over coronavirus concerns.

The stance of Amazon is that the worker, Chris Smalls, had been ordered to quarantine at home with pay for 14 days as he had been in close contact with a co-worker who was declared positive to the virus. Despite such instructions, the worker came on site and further put the teams at risk. Amazon immediately terminated the worker citing multiple safety issues. Amazon also affirmed that the company takes extreme measures for safety.

The worker believes he was directly targeted by his employer because he had stood for the workers and tried to give them a voice. The ‘’strikers’’ had demanded a temporary shutdown of the facility for Amazon to proceed to a deep-cleaning and they had also requested protective equipment and hazard pay because of the outbreak.

Supporters of the protest reportedly viewed the termination as a tactic of intimidation and retaliation for the walkout.

This would not end there. The New York Attorney General has issued a formal statement by which she calls the termination as disgraceful and has called the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the incident. New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio has called the city’s commissioner for human rights to investigate.

This story is very interesting as it opposes, from a Quebec perspective, the obligation on the employer to provide a safe workplace, which is of the utmost importance in these times, to the constitutional rights of association and free speech of the workers. Where the employer must take extreme measures to protect the health of its workers and must act swiftly to do so to prevent the spreading of the virus, the workers also have a right to organize and voice their concerns over health and safety in the workplace.

Under Quebec’s Act respecting occupational health and safety, an employer must take the necessary measures to protect the health and ensure the safety and physical well-being of his workers. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizational changes are required to fulfill this obligation.

A worker also has the right to refuse to perform particular work if he has reasonable grounds to believe that the performance of that work would expose him to danger to his health, safety or physical well-being, or would expose another person to a similar danger. Disputes between the employee and employer on the exercise of that right will be decided by an inspector from the CNESST. The worker can also file a complaint with the CNESST or notify it of a hazardous situation. The employer’s obligation to ensure that all occupational health and safety measures are taken on its premises is therefore crucial to avoid such consequences.

RSS’s Labour and Employment Law Group can help you ascertain whether you abide by the relevant governmental rules and advise you on occupational health and safety issues generally.

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