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Workers At Amazon Center In Minnesota Walk Out

Above photo: Farhiyo Warsame, pictured here, says Amazon fired her unjustly earlier this week. Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

‘You can see the disrespect.’

Workers protest for the second time this year at Amazon’s Shakopee facility. The firing of a coworker triggers Thursday-night job action and picket.

Minnesota – About two dozen Amazon employees in Shakopee walked off their jobs Thursday night to support a colleague whom they said was unjustly fired earlier this week.

The former employee, Farhiyo Warsame, also showed up at the walkout as her colleagues chanted her name.

The employees chanted, clapped, and confronted a manager about Farhiyo’s termination for two hours, through chilly temperatures and darkness.

As Farhiyo spoke to the crowd in front of the building, an operations manager with the company, flanked by a pair of other employees wearing neon vests, came out the front door. He carried a megaphone.

The operations manager told the picketing employees to socially distance and make sure they were clocked out.

“You can see the intimidation and you can see the disrespect,” said Farhiyo, 30. “They don’t see our humanity.”

At issue in Farhiyo’s firing is the company’s “time off task” policy, or TOT. This designation, employees explained, applies to any time spent not directly engaging in work like packing boxes. The workers walking out Thursday night described these work rules as unfair and unrealistic for employees.

Before her firing, Farhiyo said, a manager gave her a warning that she was using too much TOT. This came after she said managers abruptly transferred her from a job packaging items to a job as an inventory counter for the company.

Jen Crowcoft, an Amazon spokesperson, would not directly comment on Farhiyo’s firing. In a prepared statement, Crowcoft said that the company keeps performance expectations for every employee.

“We support associates who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve,” Crowcoft said. “If their performance does not improve, corrective action is taken up and to termination.”

The walkout is the latest of several labor actions from local Amazon warehouse employees, many of whom are East African. Last year, for example, several employees staged a picket line on Prime Day that drew national attention, protesting against imposed job quotas and overall work conditions. In the past, workers have staged actions asking that management slow the line speed and offer prayer space for Muslim employees.

Thursday night’s action also comes after nearly 20,000 Amazon employees, including at least 88 at this same fulfillment center, tested positive for COVID-19 this year.

Farhiyo, who started working at Amazon in 2018, said she is one of those employees: She reported she contracted the virus earlier this year while on the job at Amazon.

‘They pick on the leaders’

Hibaq Mohamed, who works the day shift in packaging and has been one of the leaders in labor actions, said she believed Farhiyo’s past participation in similar efforts played a role in her firing.

“It’s unacceptable,” Hibaq said. “They pick on the leaders.”

Several employees spoke of what they asserted are unfair TOT policies that need to change.

Ruman, another worker who packages items and didn’t want her last name to be published, said employees receive 30 minutes of TOT per shift. That allotment does not include lunch or breaks that occur when workers punch off the clock. Any time you halt your job duty for a task—such as going to the bathroom or conducting one of the five daily Islamic prayers—Amazon counts it as TOT, she said.

“If you are working 12-hour shifts, you cannot keep up,” Ruman, 21, said.

An Amazon spokesperson said employees can take up to 20 minutes of paid time for prayer or request unpaid time for longer prayer breaks.

Amal Abtidon, 30, said managers rarely alert or warn employees when they’ve allegedly used too much TOT.

“It’s not fair to us, and it’s especially not fair to the people who don’t speak English at all,” said Amal.

Using TOT got tougher to avoid after the Amazon fulfilment center put measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, employees said. To enforce social distancing, the company designated stairwells as one-way only. A limited number of workers are allowed to use the bathrooms at once.

Employees appreciate the social-distance guidelines. But they also mean that simple tasks like going to the bathroom can take twice as long as before and use more TOT, said Gulled Abdi, another worker.

“The minute I go to the bathroom and come back, they give me TOT,” said Gulled, 22. “That is not fair. That is not good.”

As the employees chanted things like, “Bring Fahiyo back,” an operations manager with the company came outside and tried to disperse the protest. Multiple times, he told the employees that any one of them could come to him and talk about individual problems.

When the workers asked him about Fahiyo, the Amazon manager refused to discuss her situation, referring to it as a personnel issue. The manager also refused to address general grievances.

The back and forth between the workers and the managers lasted for a half hour until he agreed to meet with five of them to discuss Fahiyo’s situation. At that time, the picketing dispersed.

If Amazon doesn’t rehire Farhiyo, they promised more action.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more.

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