A judge has ruled Amazon must reinstate a former warehouse employee who was fired in the early days of the pandemic, saying the company “unlawfully” terminated the worker who led a protest calling for Amazon to do more to protect employees against COVID-19.
The dispute involving Gerald Bryson, who worked at an Amazon warehouse in the New York City borough of Staten Island, has stretched on 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 illegally fired him for workplace organizing. Amazon didn’t accept the findings, and the federal board filed a formal complaint against the company, triggering a lengthy administrative court process.
On Monday, administrative law judge Benjamin Green said Amazon must offer Bryson his job back, as well as lost wages and benefits resulting from his “discriminatory discharge.” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement that the company will appeal the ruling.
“We strongly disagree with this ruling and are surprised the NLRB would want any employer to condone Mr. Bryson’s behavior,” Nantel said. “Mr. Bryson was fired for bullying, cursing at and defaming a female co-worker over a bullhorn in front of the workplace. We do not tolerate that type of conduct 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 and is heading up the Amazon Labor Union, the nascent group which won a union election earlier this month at the Amazon facility where both men worked.
After Smalls was fired, Bryson led another protest in April 2020 in front of the warehouse. While off the job during the protest, Bryson got into a dispute with another worker. He was later fired for violating Amazon’s vulgar-language policy.
Court filings give an account of the altercation between Bryson and a female employee. A recording of their dispute detailed by the NLRB showed both Bryson and the woman using profanities during a heated exchange that lasted several minutes. The agency’s account shows the woman began 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 told Bryson, who is Black, to “go back to the Bronx,” which the judge said Bryson could construe as “racial” since “since he is African-American and might question why, other than his race, someone would assume he is from the Bronx.”
Bryson testified that he informed an Amazon manager who spoke with him about the incident about that comment. The manager has denied Bryson made a reference to a racial comment. But the judge sided with Bryson’s account, saying it was unlikely that he would “fail to convey such a prominent remark to which he had a strong reaction.”
The judge said in his decision that Amazon rushed to judgment and pursued a “skewed investigation” into the argument designed to blame only Bryson for that incident, adding the company wanted to discharge Bryson for his “protected concerted activity instead of fairly evaluating” what happened.
In its investigation into the altercation, Greene 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 multiple witness accounts of the incident submitted by the company were coincidently “one-sided,” adding he found it implausible the statements were made “unless such accounts were solicited 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 temporary relief in federal court while a case goes through the administrative law process. Amazon has used the case as one of its objections over the Staten Island election results, accusing the agency of tainting the vote by pursuing Bryson’s reinstatement in the lead-up to the election.