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Jeff Bezos has become too removed from employees to see what's really going on, say the fired Amazon tech workers who inspired a VP to publicly quit (AMZN)

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  • Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, the two fired Amazon tech workers at the center of a PR firestorm, spoke to Business Insider about their experiences at the ecommerce giant. 
  • Costa and Cunningham were leaders of an internal group of Amazon employees protesting the company's treatment of its warehouse workers. The group also called for Amazon to take more urgent action on climate change.
  • The two say they were both fired on the same day and at the same time for violating Amazon's external communications and non-solicitation policies. Soon after they were fired, Costa and Cunningham organized a protest of Amazon. 
  • The firing of Costa and Cunningham, and the protests that followed, caused Amazon VP Tim Bray, a highly-respected coder, to resign and publicly condemn the company.
  • The entire episode has led to an upswing in Amazon engineers speaking out against their employer's tactics, even as state attorneys general start looking for answers. 
  • The fired workers, one of whom has been with Amazon for 15 years and has internally worked on many changes, say the whole situation is caused by one thing: Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has become too insulated from his own company.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

At 3 p.m. Pacific Time on April 10, Maren Costa — a user experience designer and 15-year veteran of Amazon with 9 patents pending — joined a video call with her boss's boss. The invite, sent to her last minute, was odd: It didn't have a subject line. 

It wasn't unusual to speak to him on a video call with the company still on work-from-home orders so she didn't think much about it until she logged on and saw an HR person had joined the call. 

The HR person said: "You have been warned in the past for breaking the external communication policy and you continue to break policies including the no solicitation policy, and by doing so you have decided to end your employment with Amazon, effective immediately," Costa told Business Insider, remembering the conversation.

She was instructed to box up any company property, send it back to Amazon and the call was ended.

"I worked at Amazon for 15 years and was fired in one phone call and I didn't even get to say a word," Costa says. 

Amazon tech employee Emily Cunningham says she was also fired from Amazon, on the same day and time, for the same reasons.

Maren Costa"I got a meeting invite at 2:45 for a 3 o'clock call with my director," Cunningham said. She couldn't make the meeting and replied asking for a later date — only to discover that she had been cut off from Amazon's network at 3 p.m. At around 4, she got a call from an HR person that lasted about 60 seconds, she says, where she was informed that she was fired for violating corporate policies. 

The external communication policy forbids Amazon employees from speaking publicly without getting authorization from the company beforehand. It was updated in  January, 2019, after an employee activist group was formed to push Amazon towards adopting a more aggressive climate change policy.

Both Cunningham and Costa were leaders of that group, known as Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ).

The group was supported by hundreds of other Amazon tech workers, some of whom publicly signed open letters in support. They staged events, got media coverage, and successfully influenced Amazon to embrace a set of new climate-related policies — although the company didn't bend to all their demands. After AECJ began its campaign, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also announced a plan to spend $10 billion of his own money funding climate science work.

AECJ's activism expanded into supporting the company's army of warehouse workers when story after story reported  on a grueling work environment. Then COVID-19 struck, and AECJ pushed Amazon to do more to protect warehouse workers as some of those workers complained the company was not doing enough to protect them. US warehouses workers now account for at least 600 cases and three deaths, as Business Insider previously reported. 

So what prompted Amazon to fire Costa and Cunningham when it did? The pair tell Business Insider that they believe it was sparked by something that happened earlier that same day: Another Amazon engineer, a member of AECJ who had given the company his two-week notice, sent out a calendar invitation to thousands of his coworkers — inviting them to an event to listen to warehouse workers speak about their experiences amid the pandemic. 

Amazon deleted the event from employees' calendars. Not long after, Costa and Cunningham got their mysterious meeting invitations. The company also fired two warehouse workers who had protested conditions, over what it said were unrelated violations of corporate policies.

The firings has led to an uproar this week, even as the company draws more attention from governmental authorities. On Wednesday, a group of lawmakers sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking him to explain the firings of Costa, Cunningham and the warehouse workers.

Costa and Cunningham tell Business Insider that they believe the whole situation is really caused by one thing: Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has become too insulated from his own company. 

Amazon declined to comment for this story. 

Shocked to the core

Cunningham was saddened, but not surprised, at being fired. She had formed AECJ to "make Amazon a better company," she said — and had been prepared to lose her job over it. If her children ever asked her what she had done to help stop the climate crisis, she wanted to have an answer.

But Costa, who had been with Amazon for a decade and a half, says that she was shocked to the core. When she joined AECJ, she thought that Amazon would listen and work with the group. She remembers telling colleagues: "We can totally do this. Amazon has always been receptive. If you have good ideas and you have the data, people will listen, resources will come," she recalled.

Costa says that in her 15 years there, she's successfully used Amazon's internal mechanisms to advocate for change "many times in the past."

Emily Cunningham

The group wanted Amazon to commit to reducing its carbon footprint, and fast enough to keep pace with the recommendations of climate scientists. 

AECJ also wanted Amazon's cloud arm, Amazon Web Services, to stop helping the major oil companies in the extraction process. The group hoped Amazon would drop Big Oil, in the same way that Google employees pressured Google Cloud into forgoing weapons-related work for the Pentagon. 

Members of the group scheduled meetings with Amazon higher-ups like the director of sustainability, "but every internal avenue we tried was met with silence and dead ends," Costa said.

So AECJ fired up a Twitter account, wrote public letters, scheduled public protests, and shared their opinions on the matter with the press.

And they won some significant victories. Amazon promised to become net zero carbon across its businesses by 2040, — which, the company points out, is a decade ahead of the Paris Agreement. But 2040 was a decade later than the deadline that AECJ was pushing for.

By comparison, in January, Amazon's Seattle-based rival Microsoft promised to be carbon negative by 2030, more in line with AECJ's hope for Amazon.

A VP quits in solidarity

Once fired, Costa and Cunningham turned their attention into throwing a full-blown, all-day protest event on Friday, April 24, a couple of weeks after news had circulated that they had been terminated. They lined up 30 speakers including climate scientists and several Amazon warehouse workers.

One particularly moving story came from a New York-based warehouse worker who described how Amazon management was slow to tell some employees about new coronavirus cases in their facility — but got much better about it in the wake of a walkout protest in March.

Hundreds of people joined the live protest event, and thousands more watched it online. The audience included one Amazon's most famous engineers, Tim Bray, a vice president with the rare title of distinguished engineer. Bray is revered in the coding world as the inventor of XML, a special language for web pages that became wildly popular with companies sharing documents over the web.

On Monday he made international headlines when he publicly quit, citing the firings of Costa, Cunningham and the warehouse workers after watching the protest event as his reason for leaving.

"Management could have objected to the event, or demanded that outsiders be excluded, or that leadership be represented, or any number of other things; there was plenty of time. Instead, they just fired the activists," he said, explaining that he, too, tried discussions through regular channels before he quit. 

"Firing whistleblowers...is evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture," he wrote, saying he was sad to be walking away from a job that he loved. He said that quitting cost him about $1 million. 

And the reverberations continued. Brad Porter, a VP and engineer at Amazon, responded to Bray's criticisms, calling them "deeply offensive to the core." Porter argued that Amazon "has responded more nimbly to this crisis than any other company in the world." Amazon says that it's spending billions to protect its workers with everything from buying millions of masks, doing temperature scans, reducing workloads to maintain social distancing, to developing its own COVID tests.

But there's simmering unrest among Amazon's engineering ranks. Anton Okmyanskiy, a principal engineer at Amazon Web Services, wrote on LinkedIn that he was inspired by the resignation of the well-respected Bray, and suggested that "Amazon stay ahead of anger-driven regulatory enforcement by becoming a leader on social justice issues. It is time!"

And programmers this week were openly calling on Amazon engineers to quit on a thread on Hacker News, a popular online hangout for tech workers. This came after someone posted that some Amazon engineers were so upset they want to help the warehouse workers organize, but were afraid of being fired if they did.

Where's Jeff?

In Costa and Cunningham's view, this is all a sign that CEO Jeff Bezos, now the wealthiest man in the world who owns multiple mansions and is building his own space program via his company Blue Origin, has become out of touch with ordinary people, especially his own employees. 

Costa believes that Amazon as a company has drastically changed from her early days. CEO Jeff Bezos is famously fascinated with the concept of "Day 1," the notion that even a company as big as Amazon needs to stay as small and scrappy as a brand-new startup on its first day of business. "Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death," Bezos is widely quoted as saying. 

In Costa's view, this whole episode is a sign that "Amazon has become a Day 2 company," and that  "they've lost that innovative, excited, brave and bold, let's make history attitude."

Costa remembers the early days when the company would send tech workers "to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with warehouse workers to get packages out to customers on time." She says that it was an exciting time, when the whole company would pull together for a common goal. 

Indeed, Amazon used to require every Level 7 tech employee and above (which is to say, its more senior staff) to spend two days working in the warehouses as part of their training, according to one long-time Amazon engineer.

But as Amazon has grown into a massive conglomerate — a major retailer, private-label manufacturer, cloud computing provider, and Hollywood producer —  Bezos has seen his fortune and fame grow, and is now the richest man in the world. 

"Jeff has become so removed from normal human beings," Costa says. His "blind spots" are the lives of his employees and customers, she believes. She points to his recent visit to an Amazon warehouse, where the arrival of the mask-wearing CEO was treated as a special PR event, rather than a normal part of his daily duties as chief executive.

Meanwhile, AECJ's activism continues to have ripple effects pushing Amazon towards even more scrutiny.

For instance, New York Attorney General, Letitia James said last month that the firing of an activist warehouse worker at a Staten Island facility could have violated labor laws, and she has called on watchdogs to open an investigation

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, attorneys general from 14 states are questioning Amazon's sick leave policies for warehouse workers. And in France, Amazon shut down its distribution centers after courts ruled it was not allowed to continue to have warehouse workers working to sell non-essential goods.

Are you an Amazon insider with insight to share? Contact Julie Bort via email at jbort@businessinsider.com or on encrypted chat app Signal at (970) 430-6112 (no PR inquiries, please). Open DMs on Twitter @Julie188.  

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