FREMONT, Calif. — Owen Diaz had seen swastikas in the bathrooms at Tesla’s electric-car plant, and he had tried to ignore racist taunts around the factory.
“You hear, ‘Hey, boy, come here,’ ‘(N-word),’ you know, all this,” said Diaz, who is African-American. Then, a few hours into his shift running the elevators, he noticed a drawing on a bale of cardboard. It had an oversize mouth, big eyes and a bone stuck in the patch of hair scribbled over a long face, with “Booo” written underneath.
When, he said, a supervisor admitted drawing the figure as a joke, Diaz had had enough. He typed a complaint to a Tesla manager on his phone. “Racist effigy & drawing” was the subject.
“When you really just look at it, you ask yourself at some point, ‘Where is my line?’” said Diaz, 50, who worked at the factory as a contractor for 11 months before he quit in May 2016.
Interviews, internal communications and sworn legal statements filed by more than two dozen current or former Tesla employees and contractors describe a wide range of concerns among some African-American workers at the factory in Fremont, including threats by co-workers, demeaning assignments and barriers to advancement. Three lawsuits by former workers accusing Tesla of failing to curb racial discrimination and harassment have been filed since early last year, including one by Diaz awaiting trial.
Tesla rejects the workplace portrait painted in the complaints as inaccurate, saying there is no evidence to support “a pattern of discrimination and harassment.” It is not the only automaker to face allegations of racism in recent years, and it acknowledges that “in a company the size of a small city, there will at times be claims of bad behavior,” real or false. But it said there was no indication that the factory had an unusual rate of complaints.
“We strive to provide a respectful work environment for all employees and do our best to prevent bad conduct,” the company said. African-American employees at various levels of authority, made available by Tesla, said their own experiences had been positive.
Crystal Spates, a production manager overseeing 500 people building the Model 3, said racial slurs were not tolerated at the factory. “I have never heard, myself, anyone use that terminology,” said Spates, 30, who is African-American and joined Tesla two years ago.
Diaz also likened the plant to a small city — one in which experiences can vary, he said. “You know, you can have something that happens in one part of the city that doesn’t happen in another part,” he said. But when his son encountered racial slurs and caricatures in a different part of the factory, Diaz concluded that the issue was not an isolated one.
One suit accusing Tesla of racial discrimination and harassment, filed last November in California Superior Court, seeks class-action status. The lawyers — Lawrence A. Organ and Bryan Schwartz, whose practices focus on workplace rights — say they have identified dozens of potential plaintiffs. Each lawyer has won multimillion-dollar judgments in other harassment or discrimination cases against major employers. Tesla is seeking to move the case into arbitration, which would require workers to bring individual lawsuits rather than a joint claim.
The state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing says it has issued 10 “right to sue” letters — a precondition for a discrimination lawsuit — to employees complaining of racial bias at the Fremont plant.
A settlement offer
DeWitt Lambert, an African-American electrician, was not quite 40 when he left home in Mobile, Alabama, in 2012 and drove to California in search of a job. Tesla hired him in June 2015 as a production associate, mostly installing seat belts.
Soon, he said, he encountered co-workers mocking his Southern drawl. He started to wear headphones to drown them out, but when the occasional taunts turned to frequent racial slurs, he said, they were hard to ignore.
The company granted his request to change stations, but his tormentors started lingering near his new spot, he told officials, and he worried that they “are going to do something to me.”
Between June 2016 and February 2017, Lambert sent at least a dozen text messages, emails, photos and videos to human resources, copies show.
The evidence sent by Lambert included a 58-second cellphone video, punctuated by repeated racial slurs, in which an unidentified narrator walking the factory floor says it’s “DeWitt’s” phone and threatens to “cut you up … so everybody can have a piece of you, (N-word).” He said it had been recorded by co-workers who took his phone and meant it as a threat.
Feeling that he had a potential civil rights claim, he consulted a lawyer about legal options, and filed a complaint with the state fair-employment agency.
Tesla’s general counsel, Todd Maron, wrote in March 2017 with an offer to settle.
“We are willing to pay Mr. Lambert $100,000, but only if we are to resolve this matter before there is media attention,” Maron wrote in an email provided by Lambert’s lawyer.
Attached was a four-page document outlining information the company had collected to undermine Lambert’s claims. “Our CEO, Elon Musk, has reviewed this case personally and notwithstanding everything that’s in the attached document, he is sorry that this case did not get escalated much sooner and he agrees that change is needed,” the email stated.
Lambert, who declined the settlement offer in favor of a chance to take the claim to trial and argue for higher damages, was put on paid administrative leave.
In June, after Tesla succeeded in moving the case to arbitration, Lambert received a letter terminating his employment, saying the company had discovered acts “inconsistent with Tesla’s values.” Tesla said Lambert himself had been involved in “instigating use of the ‘N-word.’” He conceded that he had used the epithet at times, but only with other African-Americans.
After Tesla moved to bring the case to a close, an arbitrator issued a preliminary ruling saying it merited fuller consideration.
“I feel like everything was taken away from me,” Lambert said. “I got everything snatched from up under me since I complained about it.”
A son’s parallel path
Owen Diaz said he had ultimately found the environment so degrading that he struggled to get out of bed for work.
As for the graffiti, Tesla said that Diaz brought “a single drawing to the attention of his supervisor” and that it “was promptly and thoroughly investigated.” It said a contractor involved had been given a warning and suspended without pay.
Despite what he said he had experienced, Diaz was eager to give his youngest son, Demetric, a chance at the company’s pay and stock options. So he recruited him as a fellow contractor in 2015, working in a different production area.
The first weeks were fine for Demetric, now 23. But he started to notice incidents that disturbed him.
“I started telling him like, ‘Hey, well, I seen this, Dad,” Demetric said. “When I was in the bathroom,” he said, he saw vulgar graffiti that included a racial slur.
The younger Diaz complained to his staffing firm and then to a Tesla supervisor about racial abuse, protesting that the supervisor was “calling me an N-word every day,” according to a lawsuit. The suit says that within days, he was given a written warning of misconduct and was shortly out of a job. Tesla said he had been let go after repeated warnings about failing to wear protective clothing.
His father hung on for a few more months. Then he quit.