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
"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.