The Women Who Criticized Amazon — and Got Fired

Photo: Courtesy of Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham

Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham are out of a job. Two weeks ago, they were fired from Amazon, after a combined 22 years at the company.

Both Costa and Cunningham were user-experience designers based in Seattle. Their final conversations with Amazon HR were abrupt if not unforeseen: They are two of Amazon’s most visible critics from inside the tech behemoth, women who have been speaking out against its relationship with the fossil-fuel industry and lack of leadership on climate change for more than a year. Cunningham helped found the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group, joined by Costa, which organized a walkout of around 3,000 Amazon employees during last year’s Global Climate Strike. They subsequently received warnings from Amazon HR, which updated the company’s external communications policies to say employees may not “publicly disparage or misrepresent” Amazon, and they must have a “business justification” for talking to the press.

In the last two months, both women began tweeting about conditions in Amazon’s warehouses as the coronavirus crisis ballooned; the company has been criticized for gaps in its responses to the virus even while it has reaped immense profit, and for retaliating against workers who have attempted to organize. On April 10, another corporate employee was asked not to return to work hours after sending a calendar invite for a virtual discussion between warehouse and tech workers, he told the New York Times. Then Costa and Cunningham were terminated for “repeatedly violating” the external-communication rules, Amazon said, and a “no solicitation” rule when, weeks prior, they forwarded an email that included a link to a warehouse workers’ petition. “We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions,” a spokesperson told the Cut, “but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies. We terminated these employees for repeatedly violating internal policies.” The company says it has increased safety measures in warehouses, as well as added $2 an hour of hazard pay, and up to two weeks of paid time off for anyone diagnosed with the coronavirus or who is presumptively positive.

Costa and Cunningham filed for unemployment, then kept organizing. Today, over 300 employees are participating in a sick-out they helped to coordinate, to keep the momentum going on both fossil-fuel divestment and workers’ rights at Amazon, with a daylong livestream of virtual talks from people like Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and Robert Reich, and more conversations with warehouse workers. It comes amid a wave of smaller strikes at Amazon warehouses, fast-food restaurants, and among delivery service workers throughout the country. They are hopeful that a tipping point, in which more Amazon employees on both the tech and warehouse sides speak out, is within reach.

Costa and Cunningham spoke with the Cut about their firings, their friendship, and why Amazon is uniquely suited to lead on issues of climate and worker justice.

How did you meet?
Maren Costa: Emily and I knew of each other, but what really connected us was when Emily sent an email to all the designers about why she chose to speak to the press in December 2018. I had been freaking out [about climate change] and trying to connect with and fire up groups of people, but then the email comes from Emily. She’s actually doing it; she’s talking to the New York Times. I responded with a heart emoji, and said, “Oh my God, I love you.”

Emily Cunningham: My subject line was “Why I spoke with the New York Times on record,” because that was unheard of at Amazon. I had always really admired Maren because she was so well liked, and she was two levels above me in the company. I think if she hadn’t written back … it was great because love and courage have really been at the foundation of what our group is about. And that just catapulted us forward.

What made you decide to speak out?
Costa: I wanted to make Amazon a better company. This is one of the largest employers in the world, with a massive position on the global stage. If it decided to lead on climate, if it decided to lead on workers’ rights, it could set the bar.

Cunningham: I just knew I was in a really unique position being an employee at one of the most powerful companies in the world, with the richest man in the world as my boss. That because of its position in the global economy, it could play a powerful role in getting the entire world to shift off of fossil fuels.

Were you surprised when you got fired, or did you see this coming?
Costa: I didn’t quite expect that Amazon would be so threatened by the idea of warehouse workers simply being able to tell their story to tech workers. I think it’s really telling that they felt the need to swiftly fire the two most visible leaders of both the climate movement and the movement to fight for workers’ rights. They had to swoop in and fire both of us and kill the email invite to the tech workers and warehouse workers conversation event, which had already gotten a thousand accepts, and 550 tentative accepts, in the two hours that it was out there. If they are so proud about the way that they are treating our frontline workers, our essential workers, the workers that Jeff himself refers to as heroes, why are they so concerned about us having a conversation?

What are the biggest issues the company needs to address right away regarding coronavirus?
Cunningham: One of the biggest issues that we’re hearing from our warehouse colleagues is transparency. At first there would be a coronavirus case and they wouldn’t learn until eight days later; then finally some things started to shift and then they were hearing about the cases. But I just heard about this yesterday — sometimes they’ll be told about a case of coronavirus at the end of their shift, so basically management was concerned that people would go home early. They feel very angry and disrespected by that. And they’re not being told how many coronavirus cases there are. Is it 2,000 cases, is it 200, is it 2? They have no way of knowing because Amazon isn’t telling them.

Costa: Not to mention the fact that for tech workers, in the South Lake Union campus in Seattle, because there was one case of COVID-19 in one building, the entire campus was shut down. But if Amazon loses warehouse workers because some people are freaked out, or because they’re caring for a vulnerable relative, or because they themselves have caught it, Amazon just brings more people in. Bodies down, they bring more bodies in. Amazon is trying to say that it’s doing everything it can to protect its heroes. But tell me this, Jeff Bezos, what was the mandate from the top: to keep warehouses running at full throttle and take care of workers as necessary? Or was the mandate to shut the warehouses down to an absolute minimum so that we can protect our heroes until we can figure this stuff out and bring our heroes back in?

What were your HR conversations like?
Costa: I was working at home and my son happened to be in the adjoining room. The HR person said, “You know you’ve been warned in the past for breaking the external-communications policy. You’ve continued to break policies, including the no solicitation policy, and you thereby have chosen to end your employment at Amazon, effective immediately. You’ll get a box with a return label and you can return your assets,” and then, “I’m ending this call.” A 60-second call that ended a 15-year career. My son came over and he gave me a hug and said, “Did you just get fired? Because of the climate stuff?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Do you regret it?” And I said, “No, absolutely not.”

Cunningham: I declined a meeting invite from my director for a spontaneous three o’clock call. They had already shut off my access to the Amazon network. I ended up getting a phone call, and it also was an abrupt conversation.

How are you feeling now?
Costa: In comparison to my warehouse-worker colleagues, I feel incredibly privileged. I don’t have to worry that I’ve been out of work for a week now, and I can still pay my bills. For the warehouse workers, they miss a day and they might not be able to put food on the table. And that’s why they need the people in the positions of privilege to stand with them.

This article has been corrected to attribute a quotation to Maren Costa mistakenly attributed to Emily Cunningham.

The Women Who Criticized Amazon — and Got Fired