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California agency accuses Tesla of racial discrimination, harassment

The state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing claims the electric carmaker’s San Francisco Bay area factory is a hostile work environment for Black employees.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A California civil rights agency has sued Tesla, alleging Black employees at the electric car manufacturer’s factory in the San Francisco Bay area faced discrimination and harassment.

The 39-page complaint filed in Alameda County Superior Court by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) claims that Tesla’s marketing of its vehicles to “environmentally conscious, socially responsible” buyers “masks the reality of a company that profits from an army of production workers, many of whom are people of color, working under egregious conditions.”

According to the lawsuit, Tesla’s Fremont factory east of San Francisco racially segregates Black workers to the “lowest levels,” asserting that they comprise approximately 20% of the factory operatives, but none of the executives and only about 3% of the plant’s professionals. The complaint attributes the alleged segregation and lack of Black leadership to a culture where complaints of racism were left unaddressed for years on end.

These include claims that managers and supervisors repeatedly used the most racist and incendiary slurs to refer to Black workers and called the factory the “slaveship” or “the plantation.” One Black worker estimates in the complaint that they heard these racial slurs and remarks 50 to 100 times per day.

The complaint further asserts that swastikas, slurs and racist messages are “etched onto walls of restrooms, restroom stalls, lunch tables and even factory machinery.”

Additional claims include Black workers facing more severe discipline and more physically strenuous duties but fewer opportunities for advancement, less pay and lower-level roles. Complaints about disparate treatment and racism within the workplace were ignored or resulted in the firing of the worker in retaliation, according to the lawsuit.

"After receiving hundreds of complaints from workers, DFEH found evidence that Tesla’s Fremont factory is a racially segregated workplace where Black workers are subjected to racial slurs and discriminated against in job assignments, discipline, pay and promotion creating a hostile work environment,” said Kevin Kish, the agency's director, in a statement. “The facts of this case speak for themselves. DFEH will continue to take steps to keep workplaces free of harassment and racism." 

In a statement released Wednesday before the lawsuit was filed, Tesla blasted the complaint as “misguided” and minimized the claims as “alleged misconduct by production associates” that occurred between 2015 and 2019. The statement touted a report from the company’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team as evidence of its commitment to workplace fairness and safety and a training program that requires employees to “treat each other with respect and reminds employees about the numerous ways they can report concerns, including anonymously.”

“Tesla has always disciplined and terminated employees who engage in misconduct, including those who use racial slurs or harass others in different ways,” the statement said. “Tesla continues to seek to provide a workplace that is safe, respectful, fair, and inclusive ­— all of which are vital to achieving our mission.”

According to Tesla, the agency has investigated it nearly 50 times on workplace discrimination or harassment claims and closed every investigation without finding misconduct by the company.

“The Fremont factory has a majority-minority workforce and provides the best paying jobs in the automotive industry to over 30,000 Californians. No company has done more for sustainability or the creation of clean energy jobs than Tesla,” the company said. “Attacking a company like Tesla that has done so much good for California should not be the overriding aim of a state agency with prosecutorial authority. The interests of workers and fundamental fairness must come first.”

Tesla has been embroiled in a number of recent controversies, including a slate of recalls on hundreds of thousands of Tesla has been embroiled in several recent controversies, including a slate of recalls on hundreds of thousands of vehicles for violations of federal motor vehicle safety standards and software errors. Under scrutiny from regulators, the company also disabled a feature that would allow video games to be played on the dashboard while the car is moving and later disabled a feature that programmed their “full self-driving” vehicles to roll through four-way stop signs.

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