Amazon settles with employees who said they were fired over activism

Environmentalists protesting outside Amazon’s shareholder meeting
Paayal Zaveri | CNBC

Amazon settled with two former employees who the National Labor Relations Board claimed were illegally fired for publicly speaking out about the company’s climate record and labor policies.

Terms of the settlement between Amazon and the two employees, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, weren’t immediately disclosed. The settlement was announced by NLRB Administrative Law Judge John Giannopoulos at a virtual hearing, where Giannopoulos was expected to review the NLRB’s complaint.

NLRB spokesperson Kayla Blado confirmed a private settlement was reached between the parties. Amazon declined to comment.

Attorney James McGuinness, representing the Seattle chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, who filed the NLRB complaint on behalf of Cunningham and Costa, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Earlier this year, the NLRB found Amazon illegally retaliated against Cunningham and Costa when it fired them in April of 2020. Amazon previously said it disagreed with the NLRB’s findings, claiming that it fired Costa and Cunningham for “repeatedly violating internal policies.”

In their complaint to the NLRB last October, Costa and Cunningham alleged Amazon violated federal labor law by firing them “based on discriminatory enforcement of its non-solicitation and communication policies,” the latter of which prohibits employees from speaking about Amazon’s business without manager approval.

By reaching a settlement, Amazon avoids what could have been a potentially lengthy trial, complete with witnesses and a dissection of its treatment of employees. Had the NLRB sided with the employees, Amazon could have been forced to rehire Cunningham and Costa or award them back pay, among other remedies.

Cunningham and Costa worked at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters for 15 years as user experience designers. In 2018, they became vocal critics of Amazon’s climate stance and founded an employee advocacy group that has urged the company to reduce its impact on climate change. The group, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, gained the support of more than 8,700 employees and propelled more than 1,500 employees to walk out in protest of Amazon’s climate policies.

During the pandemic, Cunningham and Costa raised concerns about Amazon’s treatment of warehouse workers. Both of them shared a petition from warehouse workers advocating for more coronavirus protections and their employee advocacy group planned an internal event allowing Amazon tech workers and warehouse employees to discuss workplace conditions.

Amazon has faced growing scrutiny from employees and outside groups over its labor practices. Warehouse and delivery workers have publicly voiced their concerns around the safety of front-line employees during the pandemic. At the same time, an increasing number of employees have filed complaints with the NLRB, many of which allege unfair labor practices.

Cunningham and Costa’s firing last April generated immediate backlash. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Vice President Kamala Harris, then a California senator, joined other lawmakers in writing to Amazon asking for more information about their firing.

Tim Bray, a prominent engineer and a former vice president at Amazon, resigned in protest last May. Bray said he “snapped” after learning of the firings, adding that remaining at the company would’ve amounted to “signing off on actions I despised.”

WATCH: California Gov. Newsom signs bill bolstering warehouse worker protections

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