Update 5/8: This story, first published on May 3, has been updated with new information.
During May Day demonstrations on May 1, contract security officers Abdinasir Elmi and Betiel Desta spoke at a press conference at Amazon's South Lake Union headquarters alongside faith leaders and other security officers to raise awareness about what they call unfair treatment they experienced as guards at the tech campus. Their complaints, which were lodged against Amazon security contractor Security Industry Specialists, included favoritism and disrespect in the workplace, a lack of raises, and unmet requests for a prayer room for Muslim officers according to representatives from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
After participating in the press conference, Elmi and Desta discovered that they were removed from Security Industry Specialists' company scheduling system, SEIU announced in a press release today.
"[This] is a shocking amount of retaliation," said a spokesperson for SEIU.
Although Elmi and Desta weren't "officially fired" from Security Industry Specialists, being removed from the scheduling system means that they cannot pick up shifts, rendering them unable to earn an income, said the SEIU spokesperson. The two security officers are now working with their coworkers to form a union, an effort that's been going on for about five years, they said.
At the beginning of the month, Elmi and Desta filed retaliation charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Security Industry Specialists for cutting workers hours and for "[videotaping] officers engaging in legally protected union activity in an intimidating manner, and that an officer was threatened with suspension because they spoke out to address their concerns to Security Industry Specialists," they said. Elmi and Desta filed a new charge with the board after they were removed from the company system, the SEIU spokesperson said.
After the press conference, Elmi and Desta delivered a letter co-signed by interfaith and civil rights groups to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, calling on him to "take swift action" to ensure workers have time to pray during work breaks. This, they wrote, is particularly important during holidays such as Ramadan and Eid so employees can "fulfill the needs of their job without sacrificing the duties of their faith." Bezos staunchly opposed President Donald Trump's Muslim ban earlier this year.
SEIU estimated that about 800 Security Industry Specialists security officers guard Amazon's downtown campus.
The letter also included allegations that Security Industry Specialists management made "disparaging" remarks to employees, including "Don't blame us if you don't get relieved for break, blame the Muslims."
While we understand that the issue of staffing and accommodations might be an administrative challenge, it is the responsibility of the employer to schedule for breaks. There is also a more responsibility to allow employees the space to work and pray without fear of reprisal from co-workers or management. Such "divide and conquer" tactics are especially dangerous as we see a national rise in hate crimes and discrimination against Muslim countries.
Security Industry Specialists representatives didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
UPDATE, 5/8: Officer Desta was added back to Security Industry Specialists' scheduling system "at 2 days a week" after security officers and their supporters confronted company officials at their Seattle offices on May 3, according to a media statement from SEIU. During the demonstration, Desta and Elmi attempted to deliver a letter to Security Industry Specialists President and Chief Financial Officer Tom Seltz, but he refused to meet with workers, the union said.
According to Officer Elmi, SIS now says they would return him to work if he provides a doctors' note for 3 days he was sick in November of 2016.
Seattle ordnance clearly states that doctor's notes are not required unless you miss more than 3 days.
SIS has previously entered into a settlement with the city of Seattle for violating this very provision of city law. Furthermore, Officer Elmi feels the timing of the request for documentation is an example of what he believes is retaliation.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has called for an investigation into SIS in a letter to the Office of Labor Standards. Noting that “SIS has become a chronic violator of workers’ rights,” Sawant calls on the OLS to investigate SIS’s retaliation against workers and adherence to labor standards, as well as to do what it can “to defend the rights of Elmi and Desta.”
Neither Seltz nor Security Industry Specialists representatives responded to requests for comment.
UPDATE 5/9 at 10:35 a.m. In an e-mail to The Stranger, Security Industry Specialists President and Chief Financial Officer Tom Seltz said that SEIU, Desta, and Elmi are circulating "false allegations."
Although the SEIU has threatened to file charges pertaining to these two individuals, we have not seen anything that actually was filed. The SEIU did leave a copy of an unfiled charge at our office last week (attached). This is not uncommon for the SEIU. They've been attempting to unionize SIS employees for years and, during the course of this campaign, they have filed dozens of charges. They have yet to prevail on a single one. Their strategy is to file charges so that they can reference them and attempt to drum up bad publicity, equating their baseless allegations with fact. No one pays attention when the charges are withdrawn by the SEIU or dismissed by the [National Labor Relations Board]. ...
One of our HR representatives offered to meet with [Elmi and Desta], individually, the following day at 10 am. Both confirmed that they would attend; neither showed up the next day, nor did they indicate in advance that they would not attend.
Seltz also claimed that Elmi was removed from his May 2 shift "due to his excessive absences over the past three weeks."
An SEIU spokesperson said that Elmi missed these shifts due to an uncle's death and notified his employer accordingly. The representative said neither of the security officers "stood up" Security Industry Specialists representatives. After Elmi was offered a one-on-one meeting, he e-mailed the representative twice to cancel the meeting. Additionally, she said, Seltz "has never reached out to us – though we’ve asked many times, often publicly."
"Most of our workers are wary of meeting with SIS management one-on-one," the SEIU spokesperson said. "Faith leaders and community supporters have offered to accompany them to any meetings with management to reduce the risk of intimidation/retaliation, but Elmi was only offered a one-on-one meeting."
She continued: "We’ve heard a lot of reports from officers that SIS maintains a hostile environment for its workers, particularly those who are Muslim and who choose to speak out. ... Workers feel that SIS has been consistent in retaliating against those who stand up for themselves."