By Jeffrey Dastin

(Reuters) -The U.S. National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday alleged Amazon.com Inc illegally fired an employee this year who was raising alarm about workplace safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amazon associate Gerald Bryson was helping lead a protest outside a company warehouse in Staten Island, New York on April 6 while off the job, when he got into a dispute with another worker, according to Bryson’s attorney Frank Kearl. Amazon later fired Bryson on the grounds he violated its vulgar language policy, Kearl said.

In a statement, Amazon said Bryson was “witnessed by other employees bullying and intimidating a female associate.” While it respects workers’ rights to protest, Amazon said that does not give them impunity when acting wrongly.

In June, Bryson filed an unfair labor practice charging that Amazon terminated him for protesting work conditions, which is protected under the law. On Thursday, a spokesman for the U.S. NLRB said the case had merit.

The decision marks at least the second time the Board alleged Amazon has violated labor law during the pandemic, which the company is contesting. It comes at a time of increased organizing at Amazon over work conditions, including a nascent drive to unionize in Alabama.

Amazon now has a chance to settle the charge, potentially reinstating Bryson and offering missed pay, or the Board will bring a case against the company.

“We look forward to sharing the facts on this case before an administrative law judge should the NLRB issue a complaint,” Amazon said.

The company has taken measures to keep workers safe during the pandemic, including adding temperature checks and requiring social distancing at facilities. Still, more than 19,000 of Amazon’s U.S. front-line employees have contracted COVID-19, the company has said, and some staff have demanded warehouse closures.

Kearl, Bryson’s attorney, said, “Amazon’s goal in firing him was to prevent worker organizing” and meant Bryson “had to go through a pandemic without income. The injustice of that is infuriating.”

The news was earlier reported by the publication Motherboard.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastina and Eva Mathews; Editing by Anil D’Silva and Edward Tobin)

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