OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Tesla, Inc. in federal court on Thursday, accusing the automotive and clean-energy company of pervasive racial harassment against Black employees.
Responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws, the commission claimed in the complaint Tesla supervisors and others regularly used the “N-word” at Black workers, who often saw racist graffiti — like swastikas and nooses — plastered on desks, equipment and vehicles rolling off production lines.
The commission said Tesla has subjected Black employees at its Fremont factory to this harassment since May 29, 2015. It also claimed that Tesla has illegally retaliated against workers by firing or giving unjustified write-ups and reassignments to employees who spoke up about the discrimination.
Tesla couldn’t be reached for comment as of publication time.
According to the commission, racial slurs — mostly variations of the “N-Word” — and race-based stereotyping have been used by non-Black managers, supervisors, temporary workers and others.
“The racial misconduct was frequent, ongoing, inappropriate, unwelcome and occurred across all shifts, departments, and positions, including but not limited to the Production Associate position,” the commission wrote.
One Tesla employee said people, especially white men, used the slur regularly. Non-Black employees have started seemingly innocuous conversations with the slur, with one Black worker describing their use as “casual and normal.”
The commission wrote in their suit that Black workers also have faced slurs and insults like “boy” and “monkey,” with non-Black workers mocking Black employees with monkey noises. Black employees also have faced offensive, racially charged insults like “lazy” and “smelly.” Graffiti of swastikas, nooses and threats have been found on different surfaces in the factory.
“Black employees have described the prevalence of racist imagery as ‘frequent,’ ‘constant,’ ‘a regular thing,’ and occurring ‘too many times to count,’” the commission said.
These slurs and epithets were said openly in employee areas and witnessed by supervisors, who failed to get involved. Black employees reported the slurs and graffiti, though Tesla took no action, failed to investigate and adopted no policies to ensure racial harassment wasn’t occurring.
Additionally, some Black employees have faced pushback for reporting the harassment. One Black worker was fired within weeks of making a report. Others reported retaliation in the form of schedule changes, reassignments and unjustified disciplinary action.
“Tesla fired one Black employee who had opposed harassment right after advising her of Tesla’s policy not to retaliate,” the commission wrote.
Over a month before taking the matter to court, the commission had sent Tesla a letter stating it had reasonable cause to believe the violations had occurred. It then asked Tesla to work toward stopping the unlawful actions and providing relief, as well as giving the company a chance to correct the discriminatory practices.
The commission couldn’t reach a conciliation agreement to its satisfaction, and in June it issued a notice of failure of conciliation.
“Every employee deserves to have their civil rights respected, and no worker should endure the kind of shameful racial bigotry our investigation revealed,” said Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chair Charlotte A. Burrows in a statement. “Today’s lawsuit makes clear that no company is above the law, and the EEOC will vigorously enforce federal civil rights protections to help ensure American workplaces are free from unlawful harassment and retaliation.”
The commission asks for an injunction stopping Tesla and its employees from engaging in racial harassment and creating a hostile workplace, and to stop the company from retaliating against employees. It also requested an order to ensure equal employment opportunities exist for Black employees.
Additionally, the commission wants appropriate backpay with interest for the affected employees, as well as other compensation and punitive damages against the Delaware-based company with a headquarters in Texas.
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