Former Tesla factory workers allege racial harassment in new lawsuit

Sean O'Kane
The Tesla factory in Fremont, California.
Getty Images

Three former employees of Tesla's factory in Fremont, California, claimed they've suffered constant, often daily racial discrimination and harassment, and that the electric car company did little to nothing to stop the behavior. The allegations were made in a new lawsuit that was filed yesterday in California's Alameda County Superior Court; it names Tesla and three staffing agencies as defendants. The suit was first reported by Mercury News.

In the lawsuit, the three men — who are all African-American — say they were "thrilled" to join Tesla, "an innovative and groundbreaking company that is at the forefront of the electric vehicle revolution," but allege that they were repeatedly subjected to racial slurs and racist drawings by co-workers and even superiors. It was a "scene straight from the Jim Crow era," they claim.

The three men listed as plaintiffs in the suit are Owen Diaz, who was employed as an elevator operator at the Fremont factory between June 2015 to May 2016; his son Demetric Diaz, who was a production associate between August 2015 and October 2015; and Lamar Patterson, who was an elevator operator between January 2016 and August 2016.

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In an email, a Tesla spokesperson says that "none of these individuals has ever brought a claim about their time at Tesla until now, in some cases years after they were last at Tesla."

The plaintiffs argue otherwise in the suit. Demetric Diaz, who was employed by West Valley Staffing Company, claims he was subjected to the n-word regularly, and that the company "took no action." He also says he addressed the issue with his supervisor at Tesla, which he claims led to him being issued a written warning and, eventually, being fired for "breaking the rules." (Demetric Diaz is also suing for wrongful termination.)

Owen Diaz argues in the lawsuit that Tesla employees "drew racist and derogatory caricatures of African children that resembled the 'pickaninny' imagery of the early twentieth century," and Mercury News' report on the lawsuit includes a photo of one of these drawings credited to him. He lists a number of other times he was subjected to racial slurs, and also claims to have reported these to both his supervisor and his employment agency to no avail, which is why he eventually quit.

Robertson argues that he, too, was subjected to racial slurs, encountered "racist caricatures, images, and effigies around the factory," and was told to "go back to Africa." He claims to have reported all this to the same supervisor as Owen Diaz.

The "only somewhat relevant evidence we have found," Tesla says, "is an email from Owen Diaz to his supervisor from October 2015 in which Mr. Diaz claimed that a co-worker was yelling and making aggressive comments. That email made no mention of the use of any racist language or epithets."

Tesla also says that these employees "were at Tesla for only a short time and have been gone for well over a year," and reiterate that they were technically employed by third-party staffing agencies.

In the suit, the plaintiffs argue that each staffing agency should be considered a "joint employer" and "integrated enterprises" with Tesla to the point that "the actions of one entity can be and are attributable to the other." For example, Patterson was employed by Chartwell Staffing Services Inc. but says that he received "training and orientation directly through Tesla, clocked in and out using Tesla's timekeeping system, and Tesla maintained power over hiring and firing decisions."

A second racial discrimination lawsuit was filed earlier this year by a different man who was represented by the same attorney, Lawrence Organ. In response to the new suit, Tesla denied the claims, and questioned the motives of the attorney and the actions of his clients.

Tesla said that "timing of these new claims and the manner in which they are being publicized is notable," and that Organ "timed [the previous lawsuit] to coincide with a carefully planned media blitz in an attempt to create a disingenuous narrative that was at odds with the facts."

"Tesla's trying to make this story about civil rights lawyers, instead of civil rights," Organ told the The Verge in response. "This is about stopping people at Tesla factories from using the n-word, plain and simple."

Tesla is still in the middle of lawsuit from former employee who alleged that women experienced "unwanted and pervasive harassment." And just last week, the company fired hundreds of workers — which the company claims were based on performance — in a time that CEO Elon Musk has described as "production hell" as it attempts to ramp up production of the Model 3.

"No employee should ever feel harassed or mistreated based on their race, gender, beliefs or anything else," the Tesla spokesperson wrote today. "There are over 33,000 people working at Tesla, and given our size, we recognize that unfortunately at times there will be cases of harassment or discrimination in corners of the company. For there to be zero cases in a global workforce of 33,000 would be impossible for any company, no matter how much we care. And we care a lot, particularly given how hard everyone at Tesla works to do what most regard as impossible."

The full lawsuit filing is available here on Scribd.

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