Some Tesla workers who were originally informed they were not “obligated” to show up for shifts at the company’s Fremont, California production facility as it reopened during the coronavirus pandemic have in fact received termination notices, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.
Tesla employees Carlos Gabriel and Jessica Naro told the Post that they had received notices saying they had been fired for “failure to return to work” while taking unpaid leave, which the company promised would not result in discipline.
Both employees said they believe that they were targeted for voicing concerns about labor conditions at the Fremont plant; both received callbacks from Tesla’s human resources department, but only Naro was later told she could keep her job (if she set a specific return date). Gabriel specifically received an email from Tesla acting HR director Vince Woodard in May stating “there is no need to feel that you are going to lose your job” and “you can stay home without penalty and take the time unpaid.”
Another half-dozen Tesla employees who spoke with the Post detailed a lack of social distancing at the Fremont plant, including during meetings, and little enforcement of policies mandating masks and cleanliness of machinery. Production line worker Branton Phillips told the paper, “it’s hot and sweaty inside there, we’re working 11-hour days and we’re stressed out. It’s making for real—sometimes very—tense situations inside.”
Tesla has repeatedly been hit with accounts of retaliation against workers who complain about conditions, including union organizers and a female engineer who said there was rampant sexual harassment and wage discrimination at the company. Numerous workers reportedly voiced apprehension about returning to the Fremont facility, which CEO Elon Musk reopened in blatant violation of an Alameda County health order. (Musk is a coronavirus skeptic who repeatedly issued poorly informed assertions the threat of the virus was exaggerated.) Tesla reportedly threatened workers that their unemployment benefits could be slashed if they did not return in violation of that order, though the county eventually caved amid a lawsuit and claimed the two parties had reached an agreement.
According to the Post, one Tesla worker said employees are “hovering over each other,” while another said staffers had disappeared from the job for two weeks at a time, with managers often referring to the employees as out “sick” without further explanation. Alameda County officials told the paper they are reviewing their policies to see what data on coronavirus cases at Tesla they could release. Tesla did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment and hasn’t publicly released any information. However, Alameda County has seen over 5,200 confirmed cases.
Musk “is causing untold problems for his workers,” Jane McAlevey, a union organizer and UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education senior policy fellow, told the Post. “He has stressed them out—there’s a huge history there before the covid crisis of health and safety violations. They’re saddled by the kind of promises and rushed production that get people hurt, and now he’s doing it again during a pandemic.”