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Amazon to Laid-Off Workers: You Can Bad-Mouth Us
By Allison Linn   Associated Press
SEATTLE — Laid-off hourly workers at Amazon.com Inc.'s Seattle customer service center will now be able to receive extra severance benefits without signing an agreement prohibiting them from bad-mouthing the company.

The Seattle-based company had earlier told the laid-off workers they would each receive an extra six weeks' pay and $500 in cash if they signed an agreement that included a promise not to make derogatory comments about the company.

Amazon said Thursday it is still asking hourly employees to sign the agreement to receive the extra benefits, but told workers they can delete that particular clause. Employees that do not sign the agreement will receive only the standard two weeks' pay.

The remainder of the agreement covers confidentiality, noncompetition and other legal issues.

Gretchen Wilson, an organizer with the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, which has been trying to organize Amazon employees, applauded Amazon's decision. But she said her organization is still calling for an absolute withdrawal of the separation agreement. She said she is still concerned about limits on legal action workers can take against the company and other issues.

"Workers should be allowed to receive a full severance package without conditions of signing away their rights," Wilson said. She also urged Amazon to take the so-called "nondisparagement" clause out of agreements for other laid-off workers.

Amazon contends the separation agreement, including the nondisparagement clause, is standard for all laid-off employees.

But some labor experts questioned that assessment.

Steve Frank, a lawyer with Frank, Rosen, Freed, Roberts in Seattle who specializes in employment issues, called Amazon's move a public relations misstep. He said while it's common to ask high-level employees to sign separation agreements, it's unusual for hourly workers or workers without specialized knowledge to be asked to sign such paperwork.

"I bet you they regret what they did, asking (employees) to sign a nondisparagement clause in exchange for money," he said.

On Tuesday, Amazon announced that it would lay off 1,300 workers, or 15 percent of its workforce. Along with the layoffs, Amazon announced that it would close a distribution center in McDonough, Ga., and the Seattle customer service center. Workers in Seattle will have the option of paid relocation to other centers. The company wouldn't say how many of the 400 workers being laid off at the Seattle center were hourly employees.

The layoffs are part of Amazon's plans to become profitable by the fourth quarter of 2001. Though a leader in online retailing, the company that sells everything from books to tools has never turned a profit.

Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith said Thursday the company decided to take out the nondisparagement agreement because the company "heard what our employees were telling us."

Many workers had expressed concern about the clause, especially since the layoffs and the separation agreement come after efforts to unionize the Seattle customer service center.

"In retrospect, it didn't make sense with our hourly employees," she said.

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