This week an ex-Tesla employee Kaylen Barker filed a suit against the electric car maker for not heeding her complaints about discrimination based on race, claiming she was “being a Black worker at a Tesla’s renowned California factory, is to be forced to step back in time and suffer painful abuses reminiscent of the Jim Crow Era.”
The 25-year-old, Black and gay, says an employee of the white race at Tesla’s Lathrop plant was rude and slapped her with a hot grinder. When Barker complained to Human Resources, Tesla allegedly retaliated by taking her salary.
Barker’s civil case is just one of the many instances in the last few months to reveal the gruesome reality of a hostile workplace for women and those from different races at the clean-energy company’s manufacturing. It comes just two months since a juror gave another ex-worker, Owen Diaz, nearly $137 million due to the discrimination he faced at work, which included colleagues who hurled racial insults and told the employee that he should “go back to Africa.”
The company currently faces a civil rights complaint from California regulators over employee claims of widespread racism. The company was notified last month that Tesla’s California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) issued “a Notice of Cause Finding and Mandatory Dispute Resolution following an investigation into undisclosed allegations of race discrimination and harassment at unspecified Tesla locations,” according to Tesla’s annual report filed with its U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
This agency “gave notice that, based upon the evidence collected, it believes that it has grounds to file a civil complaint against Tesla,” the document stated.
The day before, DFEH filed a lawsuit against Tesla that claims systemic racism and discrimination against minorities at Tesla’s manufacturing facilities. The agency director claimed that they were able to receive “hundreds of complaints from workers” and found evidence that the 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.”
For Diaz’s multimillion-dollar case, the Tesla report stated that “the Company does not believe that the facts and law justify the verdict”, and it’s requested the jury to retry or reduce the jury’s decision.
The report also stated that it received an SEC subpoena in November of last year, requesting details on how billionaire founder Elon Musk was able to comply with a settlement in 2018 with the watchdog for securities which required his tweets to be scrutinized by a lawyer for the company.
DFEH and Tesla have yet to respond to messages from Monday.
However, J. Bernard Alexander, an attorney for Barker and Diaz, said that California’s civil rights department “has been investigating Tesla for a while now”, and the announcement is “been a long time coming.”
“The company, in my opinion, reflects on the owner Elon Musk. Musk has the capacity should he want to fix it. It’s not that significant in his eyes,” Alexander told The Daily Beast. “A person who is capable of creating the cars he creates, who is personally able to go into space, if he wanted to fix it, he’d turn his attention to it, and it would be fixed.”
Alexander claimed that Tesla and Musk’s inability to react to the company’s allegations of discrimination against women is more than the lack of response, “it’s facilitating the conduct.”
“It’s a conscious decision to say: All we care about is the cars; we could care less about the working conditions in the factory,” Alexander stated.
Alexander stated that following the Diaz verdict, he, along with his counsel, “has been inundated with phone calls” from the current Tesla employees who have similar allegations of discrimination based on race or sexual orientation or gender.
Tesla is distinct from other companies facing similar accusations because “it’s rampant, and their approach is to have a hands-off approach,” Alexander said.
“People complain to human resources, and instead of human resources addressing it, they punish the people that complain,” Alexander explained. “They don’t want to hear about it and don’t want to take responsibility for it.”
Barker’s lawsuit, filed within Alameda County Superior Court, claims that a coworker named Joanne started to attack her following her promotion to a supervisory role on her line, where she was responsible for examining and grinding brake parts. Joanne told Barker she was “Tesla should not have promoted a Black girl over her” and advised employees to avoid listening to her since “she is Black and doesn’t know anything.” Even though Joanne was dismissed for kicking Barker with a piece of work equipment, The complaint states that Tesla could hire her within two weeks for a different department.
Barker was employed by Tesla from February through October 2021. She claims that in September of the year, Tesla’s HR department began to insist that “she sign a document falsely confessing to being insubordinate.” Barker did not sign the form every morning, and HR “punished” her by sending her home five hours earlier. She says Tesla dismissed her without explanation in October. 29. She could not pay her last paycheck and demanded that security take her away from the premises “as though [she] were a criminal.”
Alexander said that the state’s regulatory actions against Tesla are a crucial alternative for those prohibited from suing the automaker. Tesla employs employees through staffing agencies and obliges staff to sign arbitration agreements. Any dispute between the company and employees must be settled privately with a third party rather than in the public eye before the jury.
“This system, this scheme that Tesla had to avoid responsibility, we were able to defeat that in the Diaz matter,” Alexander explained. “But for all those other people subjected to arbitration in the workplace, the DFEH is the best means of bringing a lawsuit because the arbitration agreements do not apply to DFEH.” (“These businesses employ arbitration to make workers slaves.” Diaz did not sign an arbitration contract when he was employed to work as an employee in the year 2015, earlier stated to The Daily Beast.)
“So if Tesla is not willing to address it from the inside, there are attorneys on the outside trying to figure out a way to hold Tesla accountable despite their attempts to avoid a public forum and force people into arbitration,” Alexander stated.
Alexander said he didn’t believe that Barker had signed an arbitration contract with Tesla. The business “could not provide a personnel file for Kaylen and claims that it has no record of her employment” in the company. “This, despite Kaylen having been issued a Tesla badge, having received deposits of wages by Tesla, and being supervised and terminated by Tesla employees,” Alexander said to us. “Therefore, to our knowledge, no arbitration agreement exists.”
Representations of racial discrimination at Tesla aren’t limited to its auto plant. A former employee in Tesla’s solar roofing department sued Tesla and the supervisor she worked for at Santa Clara County Superior Court for alleged gender and racial discrimination and sexual harassment.
Shanel Dickson 29, 29, says a supervisor of a white race accused her of being a “fat ass,” and she alleges that a colleague was snarky about her dreadlocks and even asked to kiss her hair. Shortly after, Dickson complained to Human Resources Tesla “assigned her to pick up trash,” which required her to talk to the person who had been threatening her first in the first place.
In her complaint, Dickson also claims that she “was the only woman on her solar roofing team” and that, while “men are given appropriate duties for the position,” Dickson was assigned “light duty work.”
It needs to be clarified if Tesla ever investigated Dickson’s claims. She claims she was placed on a “performance improvement plan” that stated she wasn’t meeting her job expectations following a complaint about the harassment she experienced from her boss.
The performance improvement program resulted in Dickson being ineligible for transfer to a different solar roofing site. When her mother became sick in September of last year, her lawsuit claims she was refused any internal transfers to an area on the East Coast and forced to quit.
Corey Bennett, an attorney for Dickson, told The Daily Beast that Dickson had signed an arbitration agreement when Tesla Energy hired her in September 2020. (Bennett said that Assembly Bill 51, a California law passed in 2019, prohibits employers from requiring arbitration agreements as an employment requirement is in effect, but it is being litigated by the courts.)
“When she had to escalate it to human resources, they took her off her crew and put her on trash duty, and she still had to see the guy every day,” Bennett stated. “That aspect didn’t feel well. It was a signpost to a systemic issue.”
In the meantime, a class-action suit against Tesla — which referred to its Fremont factory as a “hotbed that is a hotbed for racist behaviour”–is currently pending. An employee from the past, Marcus Vaughn, filed the suit in 2017 on behalf of Black workers employed by the automaker.
Vaughn stated that the “N-word often referred to him and his colleagues, and he wrote an email to Musk as well as an HR boss in July of 2017 to seek help in addressing the issue of discrimination within the workplace. “All I want to happen is for things to change,” Vaughn wrote in his letter, adding, “I only hope that anyone who finds this article does something to address it before one of my colleagues becomes angry and hurts someone else. This is the last thing I’d like to happen, but the tension is high in my unit, and my team’s morale is not great.”
Tesla is also amid several sexual harassment lawsuits which, includes one brought by night shift employee Jessica Barraza, who compared the Fremont factory to a “frat house” and said that “rampant sexual harassment,” the suggestion of the male supervisor, as well as unwelcome physical contact from colleagues left her suffering intense anxiety attacks as well as post-traumatic stress.