Electric car company Tesla asked employees to show up to work on Wednesday despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, including at its sprawling Fremont, California, production facility, according to emails obtained by CNBC.
The coronavirus has resulted in at least 7,000 confirmed cases throughout all 50 states and Washington, D.C., with over 120 deaths from the disease it causes, covid-19, according to the New York Times. Numerous businesses have downscaled operations and/or switched to working from home, while states and municipalities are imposing restrictions intended to encourage social distancing and slow the spread of the virus. In California, millions have been ordered to shelter in place unless they are performing essential activities; the Fremont facility is in the Bay Area’s Alameda County, which falls under that order.
According to CNBC, in an email to workers on Wednesday, Tesla North America HR leader Valerie Workman wrote the company had received “conflicting guidance from different levels of government.” But she suggested that many Tesla jobs are “essential,” mirroring the language of the shelter-in-place order and ignoring a clear directive from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office that only “minimum basic operations” can continue.
“There are no changes in your normal assignment and you should continue to report to work if you are in an essential function: production, service, deliveries, testing and supporting groups as discussed with your manager,” Workman wrote. She added that Tesla workers would not be penalized for using paid time off if they do not feel well or are “reluctant to come to work.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, Tesla CEO Elon Musk—who is not a doctor or public health expert, but has fought claims of unsafe conditions at Tesla facilities for years—downplayed concerns about the virus in a Monday email to staff. Musk wrote “My frank opinion is that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself” and stated his belief that covid-19 cases “will not exceed 0.1% of the population.”
“I will personally be at work, but that’s just me,” Musk wrote. “I’d rather you were at home and not stressed, than at work and worried.”
Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alamedia sheriff, told CNBC that “Our directive was clear” and trying to prevent a slump in production does not constitute an essential service. Many other automakers including General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler have temporarily suspended U.S. car production on a rotating basis.
According to Bloomberg, an Alameda County spokesperson said that Tesla is preparing to reduce staffing at the facility by 75 percent, though the company didn’t reply to their request for comment.
Update: 3/18/2010 at 9:25 p.m. ET: Per the LA Times, Tesla said it had 2,500 workers on site on Wednesday, about 25 percent of the factory’s normal workforce.
Kelly told the Times that the county “had a good conversation with Tesla today. They understand our position. The county explained they cannot continue their business as usual. They have to go on a minimum operations basis.”
Kelly added that as of Wednesday “it sounds like they’re still making cars,” but that “Tesla is not going to decide what the law is.” If the company continues production despite the workforce reduction the Fremont Police Department may get involved, he added.