The Industry

Unsustainable

What will it take for Elon Musk to come to grips with the alarming deluge of allegations of racism, sexism, and safety hazards coming from Tesla’s factory floors?

Elon Musk at a press conference.
Elon Musk in Hawthorne, California, on Sept. 17.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Before Owen Diaz left his job at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, in May of 2016, he had endured an onslaught of racist harassment from co-workers, according to a troubling new report in the New York Times. Diaz had reportedly seen swastikas drawn on bathroom walls, was taunted with the N-word and called “boy” by other workers on his shift, and even was presented with a drawing on a piece of cardboard of a face with exaggerated features and a bone in its hair with the word “boo” jotted underneath. Diaz reported the racist effigy and later moved to sue Tesla last year, alleging the company failed to address complaints of harassment and discrimination in its workplace. (The lawsuit is pending trial.) His son, Demetric Diaz, who took a job in a different part of the same Tesla factory via a staffing firm in 2015, also complained that his supervisor was “calling me an N-word every day,” according to a lawsuit cited by the Times.

The Diazes’ story is not unique. DeWitt Lambert also worked at Tesla’s Fremont factory in 2015, and it didn’t take long before things allegedly took a racist turn, too. After his first year at the company, Lambert, a black electrician, had reportedly sent at least a dozen complaints to human resources detailing the harassment and discrimination he regularly faced at the car plant, including a cellphone video of someone on the factory floor threatening to cut him and calling him the N-word, according to the Times. Lambert consulted an outside lawyer, and Tesla’s general counsel reportedly offered to pay Lambert $100,000 if he avoided speaking with the media.

Tesla, the high-tech electric car company led by the infamously pugnacious billionaire CEO Elon Musk, has been the locus of numerous lawsuits and complaints with regard to the mistreatment of its factory workers. In addition to the recent Times story, there have been reports about employees and contractors harassed for being gay, women getting catcalled on the factory floor, workers who sustained debilitating lifelong injuries that were left off the books, and low-ranking employees who resorted to sleeping in their cars between long shifts to make ends meet. These worker woes come against a backdrop of a company that has raced—and at times struggled—to meet its production goals, while its leader, Musk, has courted outrageous headlines for, among other things, taunting journalists on Twitter following unfavorable reporting (most notably, after the Center for Investigative Reporting’s exposé on unsafe working conditions in Tesla’s Fremont plant and after Consumer Reports declined to recommend the highly anticipated Model 3) and for tweeting that he was considering taking his company private at $420 a share (much to the surprise of his investors, which led to a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and settlement).

Though Friday’s report in the New York Times is certainly shocking for the details surfaced, it should hardly come as a surprise. Instead, it seems to add to an already turbulent year for the serial entrepreneur—who also heads SpaceX and the Boring Co.—and to an apparent pattern of harassment, discrimination, unsafe working conditions, and other tensions at his electric car plants.

Tesla isn’t the only car manufacturer that’s had issues with sexism and racism. Just in the past year, Ford paid out $10 million to settle allegations of sexual harassment at two of its manufacturing plants in Chicago. In June, a subcontractor at a Fiat Chrysler plant was fired after hanging a noose at a Jeep factory. But the stories at Tesla, a relatively new automaker in the U.S., are mounting—and fast, especially considering that, unlike these legacy auto companies, Tesla has been manufacturing cars for less than a decade. The company’s rapid spiral toward a reputation of cultivating a workplace rife with racism, sexism, and hazardous working conditions on the factory floor also clashes with its self-perception as an outré Silicon Valley tech company, most of which have a reputation for high pay, pleasant working conditions, and forward-thinking social values. Musk himself, the face of Tesla, hasn’t shied away from positioning himself as an innovative leader who can tackle complex problems like climate change, car safety, and space travel all for the benefit of humankind. Yet though he may have developed a reputation as a visionary for piloting companies like Tesla, reports from inside the company’s walls reveal how his vision for a better world seems to reflect a pattern of denying it to many of the people he’s hired to build it.

AJ Vandermeyden started working at Tesla in 2013, and about a year later, she was promoted to a role as an engineering project coordinator at the company. The job meant relocating to Tesla’s plant in Fremont. Soon after her move, she learned that she was making less than everyone else on her otherwise all-male team, including more recent hires, according to a report last year in the New Yorker. Vandermeyden also alleged she’d get catcalled and whistled at as she walked through the factory floor. A few months after starting at Fremont, Vandermeyden raised concerns, asked her manager for a raise, cited her performance reviews, and looped in human resources, according to the report. After months of being put off by her superiors, and then being asked to meet an unrealistic production goal, in 2016, she sued Tesla charging the company with sex discrimination, retaliation, and ignoring complaints of “pervasive harassment.” Tesla responded by hiring “a neutral third party,” according to a report in the Guardian, and ultimately decided that her claims were unsubstantiated. Still, Vandermeyden did not drop her case.

The Fremont plant hasn’t been the only site of Tesla’s poor conditions for workers. In Storey County, Nevada, where Tesla started operating the world’s largest battery factory in 2016, many employees are at times left sleeping in their cars at a local Walmart parking lot, in RVs near rest stops, or in the Tesla parking lot, according to multiple reports. The company has offered some temporary lodging for new hires for their first two weeks to help give them time to get housing, but workers are often unable to land anything. Despite this housing crisis, Musk recently boasted plans to hire as many as 20,000 new workers at the plant, which already employs more than 2,000 people.

Beyond the racism, sexual harassment, and pay issues for lower-ranking employees, Tesla reportedly isn’t always a safe place to work, either. A bombshell investigation from the Center for Investigative Reporting earlier this year detailed how the Tesla plant in Fremont reportedly dismissed worker safety concerns, underreported instances of serious injuries, and left injured employees unable to return to work to live off workers’ compensation and unable to provide for their families. A former employee on Tesla’s safety team told reporters that they saw “broken bones and lacerations” that Tesla didn’t record in official injury logs, as required by law. Before the story was even published, Tesla responded by calling the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting an “extremist organization.” An investigation by BuzzFeed this February found that between 2012 and early 2017, 180 Tesla employees filed for compensation due to disabling injuries, according to documents obtained from the California Department of Industrial Relations.

Instead of facing these mounting problems, in recent months Musk has seemed more inclined to play the victim. He told the New York Times in August that, between navigating numerous public blunders and working around the clock to race to meet demanding product deadlines, this “has been the most difficult and painful year of my career.” But though 2018 might have been a breaking point for the ambitious billionaire, the problems at his factories have been ongoing for years. And his answer to those complaining seems to have been to ask them to put up or shut up. The Times reported that he sent a letter to factory workers last year telling them not to be “a huge jerk” to people in marginalized groups, yet went on to write that “if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology.” But that strategy of brushing off rather than dealing with serious complaints may be catching up. The company is now juggling multiple lawsuits from people who have worked at its factory and were apparently thick-skinned enough to call foul and seek redress.