For black employees at Tesla’s flagship plant in California, coming to work could mean being harassed, intimidated by a supervisor or finding racist graffiti sprayed on the walls of the plant.
According to a new lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), which alleges that black workers at the company’s Fremont plant suffered ‘creeping racism’ that the company left “unchecked for years”.
In the lawsuit, filed Feb. 9 in an Alameda County court in California, the agency says black workers said they were subjected to racial slurs and drawings and given the most physically demanding jobs. “The workers called the factory ‘slavery’ or ‘the plantation’, where the production of the defendants leads to ‘breaking the whip,'” the agency said in the complaint.
“Tesla continued to misappropriate and evade responsibility,” the lawsuit adds. “While it claims it does not tolerate harassment or racial discrimination at its factories, Tesla’s investigations of the complaints are not in accordance with the law.”
Allegations of racial discrimination at Tesla’s US facilities are not new. The company has been the subject of several employee discrimination lawsuits over similar allegations in recent years. But filed by a government agency, the new lawsuit could have much wider implications.
“When a single worker sues Tesla, the company may be motivated to sweep the allegations under the rug. But here the potential for real systemic change is much greater,” said Veena Dubal, professor of labor law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
Tesla called the lawsuit “misguided” in a public blog post, noting that it focuses on alleged misconduct that took place between 2015 and 2019, but that in recent years the DFEH has dismissed dozens of complaints for individual discrimination against the company.
The company said it does not tolerate harassment and has disciplined and terminated workers who misbehave. “A narrative told by the DFEH and a handful of corporate complainants to generate publicity is not factual evidence,” Tesla said.
The company, which has disbanded its media relations department, did not respond to requests for additional comment.
The case is just the latest spat between the automaker and US regulators. “At a time when manufacturing jobs are leaving California, DFEH has decided to sue Tesla instead of working constructively with us,” the company said in its blog post.
Earlier this week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk accused federal regulators of unfairly targeting Tesla, saying in a recent filing that the Securities and Exchange Commission had engaged in “excessive efforts” to monitor the company which “seem calculated to cool his exercise” of freedom of expression. .
The claims relate to allegations at Tesla’s Fremont factory in the San Francisco Bay Area. Black workers at the facility were subjected to “offensive racially harassing behavior so severe and pervasive that it created a hostile work environment,” according to the 39-page DFEH complaint.
Many workers reported derogatory comments coming directly from their superiors, the agency writes. A black worker said he heard racial slurs up to 50 to 100 times a day, being called the “N-word” and “hood rats,” according to the complaint.
Other workers spoke of racist graffiti found in common areas of the factory, including swastikas, KKK, the N-word and other racist writing that Tesla did not remove for months, according to the lawsuit.
Black workers said they were assigned to difficult and menial jobs in separate areas of the factory known as the “dark side”, the DFEH also says, and are less likely to be promoted to management positions. .
“For many black workers, the stress of severe and pervasive racial harassment, the risk of physical altercation and escalation with harassers, blatant discrimination, disproportionately harsh discipline and the futility of complaining, have rendered conditions work so intolerable that they quit,” the complaint reads.
years of complaints
The complaint also alleges that Tesla ignored “years of complaints from black workers.”
“These numerous complaints by black and/or African American workers of racial harassment, racial discrimination and retaliation filed over a period of nearly a decade have been unsuccessful,” the lawsuit states.
A diversity report Tesla released in December 2020 showed that employees identifying as Black and African American made up 10% of its U.S. workforce, but only 4% of manager-level employees. Employees who identified as Hispanic and Latino employees make up 22% of the total workforce, but only represent 4% of employees at the manager level and above.
According to the DFEH complaint, Tesla’s human resources department is “understaffed and insufficiently trained,” resulting in a failure to address worker complaints. In 2020, the company had one human resources professional for every 740 employees, the DFEH said.
“A black female worker said that immediately after complaining of racial harassment, [Tesla] The HR manager texted his stalker, who was also his supervisor, about her complaint against him,” the complaint states.
Lawsuits pile up
Last week’s filing is just the latest in a series of discrimination lawsuits targeting what has become the world’s most valuable automaker.
In October, a federal jury awarded $137 million to Owen Diaz, an employee at the Fremont plant in 2015 and 2016, who said managers ignored his complaints of repeated racial harassment, including name-calling and slurs. swastikas scrawled on bathroom walls. A judge in the case is considering Tesla’s offer for a new trial or to lower the price, which is one of the most important in a discrimination lawsuit brought by a single worker.
In December, six plaintiffs working in factories across the United States alleged that they had suffered physical assaults, harassment and chat calls at Tesla facilities. Another employee made similar statements in a lawsuit filed in November.
“The common thread running through all of these lawsuits is the systemic nature of harassment and discrimination in the Tesla workplace,” said attorney David A Lowe, a partner at the firm representing women. “The extent of the complaints shows this is a widespread and egregious problem – it’s clearly not just a few bad apples.”
The company is also still fighting a 2017 lawsuit filed by Marcus Vaughn, another employee at the same Fremont plant who alleged he was repeatedly called the “N-word” by managers and employees. colleagues. Vaughn also claims he was fired for “not having a positive attitude” when he complained about the treatment to HR.
A judge in 2018 rejected Tesla’s offer to force Vaughn’s case into arbitration. Tesla has also decided to force the recent sexual harassment case into arbitration, a claim that will be decided in the coming weeks. Tesla has denied wrongdoing in all cases and said it has implemented various policies in recent years to prevent racist behavior and punish it when it occurs.
“Our company has more than 33,000 employees, including more than 10,000 at the Fremont plant alone, so it is not humanly possible to stop any misconduct, but we will do our best to bring it as close as possible. zero,” Tesla said of the case filed by Vaughn.
Why is it different
While the DFEH lawsuit may not be the first discrimination complaint filed against Tesla, it may be the most consequential, said Dubal, a professor of labor law.
Indeed, the agency is not bound by the agreements most Tesla employees have signed to bring legal claims to arbitration rather than litigation. “While an individual suing may be sent to arbitration, the state will not. This means that this lawsuit may change the alleged pattern and practice of discrimination,” Dubal said.
The department can also seek the same type of relief as workers who sue, including court orders restraining future discrimination and damages. Such penalties can be significant: In December, gaming company Riot Games agreed to pay $100 million to settle a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by the agency.
Tesla is accused of violating the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the California Equal Pay Act, and could face multimillion-dollar fines on top of changes to internal policies.
The company may also be required to pay back wages to employees who claim to have been unfairly compensated for their work due to discrimination.
The odds don’t look good for Tesla, Dubal said. State agencies have “limited resources” and generally only take on cases where “there is very clear evidence” of wrongdoing and they are “very likely to win,” she said.
“There are many racial discrimination issues in Silicon Valley — from executive suites to factory workers,” she said. “It shows that state law enforcement agencies are listening to what people are going through and going after these companies.”