Black Workers Say Racism Is Rampant Inside Tesla. Now California Is Suing.

John Thys/AFP via Getty
John Thys/AFP via Getty

Last week, former Tesla employee Kaylen Barker filed a lawsuit against the electric carmaker for allegedly disregarding her complaints of racial discrimination, saying that “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, who is Black and gay, claims a white coworker at the company’s Lathrop plant called her the N-word and assaulted her with a hot grinding tool. After Barker complained to human resources, Tesla allegedly retaliated by withholding her wages.

Barker’s civil suit is one of multiple cases in recent months to paint a disturbing picture of a hostile work environment for women and people of color at the clean-energy giant’s factories. And it comes a mere four months after a jury awarded another former employee, Owen Diaz, nearly $137 million over racism he encountered in the workplace which included coworkers hurling racial epithets and telling him to “go back to Africa.”

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Now Tesla is facing a civil rights complaint from California regulators over employees’ accusations of pervasive racial discrimination. Last month, the 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 the company’s annual report with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The agency “gave notice that, based upon the evidence collected, it believes that it has grounds to file a civil complaint against Tesla,” the filing stated.

On Wednesday, DFEH filed a lawsuit against Tesla alleging systemic racial discrimination and harassment at the electric automaker’s facilities. The agency’s director said it received “hundreds of complaints from workers” and uncovered evidence that Tesla’s Fremont plant “is a racially segregated workplace where Black workers are subjected to racial slurs and discriminated against in job assignments, discipline, pay, and promotion.”

As for Diaz’s multimillion-dollar case, Tesla’s report said “the Company does not believe that the facts and law justify the verdict” and that it has requested a retrial or reduction in the jury’s award.

Tesla’s report also noted that it received an SEC subpoena last November requesting information on how billionaire CEO Elon Musk was complying with a 2018 settlement with the securities watchdog that required his tweets to be vetted by a company lawyer.

DFEH and Tesla did not return messages on Monday.

But J. Bernard Alexander, a lawyer for Barker and Diaz, said that California’s civil rights agency “has been investigating Tesla for a while now” and the news has “been a long time coming.”

“The company, as I see it, is a reflection of its owner Elon Musk. He’s got the ability, if he cared about it, to fix it. It’s just not important to him,” 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 said Tesla and Musk’s lack of response to the company’s alleged widespread discrimination is more than inaction, “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 said.

Alexander said that since the Diaz verdict, he and other counsel “have been inundated with phone calls” from current Tesla employees who allege similar claims of racism or discrimination because of gender and sexual orientation.

Tesla is unlike other companies facing such accusations because “it’s rampant and their approach is to have a hands-off approach,” Alexander claimed.

“People complain to human resources and instead of human resources addressing it, they punish the people that complain,” Alexander said. “They basically don’t want to hear about it and don’t want to take responsibility for it.”

Barker’s lawsuit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, alleges that a colleague named Joanne began to harass her after she was promoted to a supervisory position on her line, which ground and inspected brake parts. Joanne allegedly told Barker that “Tesla should not have promoted a Black girl over her” and warned employees not to listen to her because “she is Black and doesn’t know anything.” Although Joanne was fired after attacking Barker with a work tool, the complaint adds, Tesla rehired the woman two weeks later for another department.

Barker worked for Tesla from February to October 2021. She says that in September of that year, Tesla’s HR department began demanding “she sign a document falsely confessing to being insubordinate.” Each day, Barker refused to sign the document and HR “punished” her by sending her home five hours early. She claims Tesla fired her without explanation on Oct. 29, failed to deliver her final paycheck, and had company security escort her off the property “as though [she] were a criminal.”

The state’s regulatory action against Tesla is a key avenue for workers barred from suing the carmaker, Alexander said. Tesla hires workers through staffing agencies and requires those employees to sign arbitration agreements—meaning any disputes with the company must be decided in private by a third party rather than in public, before a jury.

“This system, this scheme that Tesla had in order to avoid responsibility, we were able to defeat that in the Diaz matter,” Alexander said. “But for all those other people who are 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 companies are using arbitration to effectively turn workers into slaves,” Diaz, who did not sign an arbitration agreement when he was hired as a contractor in 2015, previously told 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 said.

Alexander said he doesn’t believe Barker signed an arbitration agreement with Tesla; the company “was not able to provide a personnel file for Kaylen, and claims that it has no record of her employment” with 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 told us. “Therefore, to our knowledge, no arbitration agreement exists.”

Complaints about alleged racial discrimination at Tesla aren’t exclusive to its auto plants. Last month, a former worker in Tesla’s solar roofing division sued the company and her supervisor in Santa Clara County Superior Court for alleged racial and gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

Shanel Dickson, 29, alleges a white male supervisor called her the N-word and “fat ass,” and that a colleague made fun of her dreadlocks and asked to touch her hair. Soon after Dickson complained to HR, Tesla “assigned her to pick up trash,” a position that still required her to see the manager who’d harassed her in the first place.

Dickson’s complaint also states that she was “was the only woman on her solar roofing team” and that while “men are given appropriate duties for the position,” Dickson was relegated to “light duty work.”

It’s unclear whether Tesla ever completed an investigation into Dickson’s claims. She said she was placed on a “performance improvement plan” that indicated she wasn’t meeting job requirements after she complained about harassment to her manager.

The performance improvement plan made Dickson ineligible to transfer to another solar roofing location. When Dickson’s mother fell ill last September, her lawsuit says, she was denied an internal transfer to the East Coast and forced to quit.

Corey Bennett, an attorney for Dickson, told The Daily Beast that Dickson signed an arbitration agreement when Tesla Energy hired her in September 2020. (Bennett noted Assembly Bill 51, a California law passed in 2019 that prohibits employers from requiring arbitration agreements as a condition of employment, is still valid but being litigated in 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 everyday,” Bennett said. “That part didn’t sit right. It exemplified some sort of systemic problem.”

Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit against Tesla—which called its Fremont factory a “hotbed for racist behavior”—is still pending. Former employee Marcus Vaughn filed the suit in 2017 on behalf of Black workers at the automaker.

Vaughn said that he and his coworkers were routinely called the N-word, and that he penned a complaint to Musk and an HR boss in July 2017 seeking help in addressing racism in the workplace. “All I want to happen is for things to really change,” Vaughn wrote, adding, “I just hope who ever reads this does something about it before someone on my line snaps and someone gets hurt. That’s the last thing I would want to see happen but tension is very high on my line and the morale on my line is low.”

Tesla is also facing down multiple sexual harassment lawsuits, including one from night shift worker Jessica Barraza, who compared the Fremont factory to a “frat house” and said that “rampant sexual harassment,” a proposition from a male supervisor, and unwanted physical touching from coworkers left her with severe panic attacks and post-traumatic stress.

“After almost three years of experiencing all the harassment, it robs your sense of security—it almost dehumanizes you,” Barraza told the Washington Post last year.

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