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Amazon Is on a Collision Course With Employee Activists Outraged by the Climate Crisis

January 4, 2020, 1:30 PM UTC

A group of Amazon employees said Thursday that they had been questioned by Amazon’s human resources and legal representatives for speaking out last year about the company’s role in the climate crisis. According to a statement from Amazon Workers for Climate Justice, a coalition of employees who want Amazon to do more to address the climate emergency, some say they received written warnings that they’ll be terminated if they continue to speak out.

Emily Cunningham, a user experience designer at Amazon, tells Fortune in an email that she recently received a notice from HR saying that she had breached the company’s policy by not getting approval to speak to the press, or on social media, about information that she says is publicly available.

“Getting the meeting invite [from Amazon’s human resources department] was scary, for sure,” Cunningham says. “But I also had a feeling in my stomach of immense sadness as well as anger given how urgent and severe the climate crisis is, and how it is disproportionately harming and killing Indigenous people, people of color, women, children, and other vulnerable populations.”

Cunningham is not alone at Amazon. “This policy is aimed at silencing discussion around publicly available information,” Amazon software engineer Victoria Liang says in the statement by Amazon Workers for Climate Justice.

But the public pressure the employees are putting on Amazon to end contracts with oil and gas companies, stop donating to climate change-denying politicians, and to reduce pollution at warehouses, for example, is raising questions about what kind of speech is acceptable for employees. The question even more pressing in an era when everyone has a quick and easy megaphone on social media, and employee activism continues to get louder.

A ‘chilling effect’

“The general landscape is we are an employment-at-will country,” says Jeremy Merkelson, an employment attorney at Washington D.C. law firm Holland and Hart. “An employee can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. But, practically speaking, employees still have rights.”

Merkelson’s comments to Fortune cover employment law broadly, not any specific case or company. He says it’s one thing for employees to speak about matters of public significance, but quite another for them to attach their company name to their comments. “Most employers require when an employee speaks or makes social media, they have to make it clear their views are their own and not of the company,” he says. “That is permissible.”

In the case of comments Amazon’s workers, a spokesperson for the company tells Fortune that an updated approval policy was communicated to employees in September.

But members of the Amazon employee group contend the policy was intended to have a “chilling effect,” since it was shared one day after the group announced it would participate in September 20’s global climate strike, spearheaded by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg.

Amazon’s spokesperson says the policy is “not new and, we believe, is similar to other large companies.” Amazon also says it updated the policy and the approval process to make it easier for employees to participate in external activities such as speeches, media interviews, and use of the company’s logo.

“As with any company policy, employees may receive a notification from our HR team, if we learn of an instance where a policy is not being followed,” the spokesperson says.

Instead of through email, Amazon’s approval process now is run through an intranet page. The spokesperson said the process is streamlined and requires fewer senior approvals. Employees, including Cunningham, say it takes too long to get approval for an urgent issue like climate change.

“The process can take weeks,” Cunningham says.

“Attempting to create a streamlined set of processes is wise,” Merkelson says. “Having rules that everyone understands in advance is wise to try to prohibit that tension from erupting later when there has been a violation.”

Politics and policies

Some states offer more protection than others for employee political speech. California, Colorado, and Louisiana are among the states that have laws that protect an employee’s right to participate in the political arena outside of work. New York also has a similar law, says Merkelson, with an exception for activities that could create a conflict of interest to the business, like if an employee of a pharmaceutical manufacturer that conducts lab tests on animals criticized the company’s practices on social media.

Employees are also allowed to speak out about their employers without fear of retaliation in calling out discrimination in the workplace, discussing their wages, organizing a union, and speaking about unfair labor practices, rights which are detailed in the National Labor Relations Act.

And while climate change has been politicized in the U.S., it’s widely accepted as a fact by scientists and other countries.

Companies also have certain rights, such as protecting confidential information or banning the use of company resources to conduct outside activities. But according to Liang in the group’s statement, the Amazon employees’ comments have “nothing to do with protecting confidential data, which is covered by a completely different set of policies.”

While they may have received warnings, the employee group believes some of their concerns are finally being heard by Amazon. One day before the climate strike, Amazon signed a climate pledge that includes a commitment to using 100% renewable energy by 2030 and to become carbon neutral by 2040. Amazon says it ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles to help achieve this.

While Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said he is “done being in the middle of the herd,” the employees still want to see Amazon do a lot more. And the bottom line is that this new wave of employee activism is ushering in questions about how the laws can be applied—by both sides.

“This would not have happened if we all hadn’t spoken up,” the group posted on Twitter. “However, there is so much more that can and must be done.”

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