Former Tesla workers describe hostile workplace at Buffalo facility

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Complaints to supervisors included white workers frequently using the n-word and minorities being harassed and passed over for promotions. Tesla’s response? They fired them all. Now the state AG has a ‘pending investigation.’

A former African-American worker at the Tesla plant in Buffalo said that the racial tension inside the factory got so bad that the lunchroom and an assembly line naturally segregated.

He described the work environment as a “very racist place.”

When a racially charged message was found in a bathroom last year, Tesla managers scrambled together a “diversity meeting,” which African-American and Hispanic workers described as being unhelpful.

Another African-American employee applied for a promotion only to learn she lost the job to a white female employee who was alleged to have been given an advantage by being briefed by her white supervisor. Eventually, a black co-worker got one of these jobs, but on the undesirable overnight shift at $6 less per hour.

News 4 Investigates has learned that six former African-American and Hispanic workers at the Tesla plant in Buffalo filed discrimination complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Division of Human Rights. News 4 exclusively interviewed two of the six former workers but are not disclosing their identities because they fear it could hurt future employment opportunities.

What emerges from the interviews and complaints is a hostile work environment, where black employees frequently overheard white employees using the n-word and where white workers got promoted over more qualified black and Hispanic workers.

In fact, Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, who read the complaints, said they describe an “out-of-control workforce where racism and discrimination appears to be unfettered.”

The massive plant at Riverbend, which produces solar panels and other products, was built and equipped with $959 million in state taxpayer funds, the crown jewel of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative.

Some of the former employees allege that management at the Tesla factory in Buffalo used the company’s global layoffs in January as a guise to get rid of black and Hispanic employees who filed complaints about the racism and hostility.

Indeed, Tesla fired all six employees who complained or were included in complaints. Of the 57 employees laid off earlier this year, around 80 percent were minorities, according to the EEOC complaints. Tesla and its partner, Panasonic, employ about 800 workers at the facility, about half of which are Tesla workers.

The complaints from the former Tesla workers have piqued the interest of state authorities.

In fact, News 4 Investigates has learned that the Attorney General’s Office has a “pending investigation” of the work environment at the Tesla plant. Attorneys with the office have already interviewed the workers, News 4 has confirmed.

“I don’t like to pull the race card, if you will,” said a former female African-American worker.

“I didn’t want to jump right to race, but all in all, I feel like that’s absolutely what it was.”

News 4 Investigates reached out several times for a comment from Tesla, and the company has yet to respond.

Rough road

Tesla officially started production in 2018 with great fanfare from state officials, including Gov. Cuomo, who described the facility as “a beautiful monument to Buffalo’s future.”

But Tesla has had a rough start in Buffalo.

Consider that:

  • The much-anticipated Solar Roof, which is designed to resemble a traditional roof but with small solar panels instead of shingles, was delayed twice and still has not reached full production.
  • Since Tesla bought SolarCity in late 2016, the solar business side of the company has plummeted to record lows and shareholders are suing over the acquisition, calling it a “bailout.”
  • Tesla was sued by Walmart for solar panel fires on top of several stores across the country.
  • Formers employees at the Buffalo plant told News 4 Investigates in exclusive interviews in February that production goals were regularly missed, that there was little work to do, and there were few checks and balances in place. In addition, the average wage is $16.20 an hour, far from the high-paying jobs promised by state officials.
  • And the state comptroller, as reported first by News 4 Investigates, launched an audit of the state’s high-tech programs, with a specific focus on Tesla and whether state taxpayers are getting a return on their investment.

Complaints of racial tensions in the workplace have plagued Tesla for years.

In 2018, six African-American Tesla workers told the New York Times that they reported threats and barriers to promotions at the company’s Fremont, California, electric vehicle manufacturing plant. In fact, at least one employee sued, accusing Tesla managers of failing to address the complaints.

Similar problems are now being reported out of the taxpayer-subsidized Tesla plant in Buffalo.

The complaints

All six former workers said in their complaints that they heard white co-workers making racist comments toward African American and Hispanic workers.

“The knowledge that this sort of behavior appeared to be permitted in the factory would cause me stress and anxiety during my time working there,” a Hispanic former worker stated in his EEOC complaint.

They all described incidents that to them appeared as if white workers were more privileged than minority workers.

For example, one former worker, a Hispanic male, said even with his bad back, he and other minorities were given more strenuous jobs than white co-workers. He also said that a white co-worker would refer to him as “the lazy Puerto Rican” or “the Puerto Rican.”

“During my employment, I frequently heard racial epithets and slurs,” the former worker wrote in the complaint.

“Whenever I brought concerns about racist comments to my supervisor, it appeared he would consult with the white co-workers but never with any of the affected black co-workers.”

An African-American co-worker said his team leader would only ask African-American workers to do menial tasks like taking out the garbage, “while white co-workers appeared to be standing around doing nothing.”

Another African-American production associate worked with four other African-American co-workers led by a white male, who they accused of showing to work sometimes smelling of alcohol. He “would occasionally make racially charged comments,” the former employee said.

When the worker complained to HR, nothing seemed to happen.

“Months later, after white co-workers complained about the team lead’s apparent intoxication on the job, he was finally moved to a maintenance position,” the former worker said in the EEOC complaint.

In addition, the former worker said two white co-workers and one black co-worker got promotions. But the black co-worker got the undesirable weekend shift. In the second round, the former employee said 45 applied for five promotions but not a single minority got a new position

A black female former worker said she had more work experience than her two white team leaders. She wrote in her EEOC complaint that a white co-worker would take credit for her work through a computerized logging system to which she never got access. When she requested access, she was denied.

She applied for a promotion but the white co-worker she accused of taking credit for her work got the new job.

She also said she often heard a co-worker refer to African-Americans as “lazy.”

The African-American male interviewed by News 4 said he was a production worker who started off at $14 an hour doing similar work of those in the maintenance division who got paid almost double. But the people who got those jobs were all white, he said.

He complained about this to management, who eventually hired a black co-worker for that division, but gave him the undesirable overnight shift at a wage $6 less per hour.

In addition, he said that throughout his employment he heard co-workers make racist comments.

“For instance, I recall myself and other black co-workers complaining about a white, female co-worker who used the n-word frequently being moved to a different division but ultimately promoted in my division to a maintenance technician,” he stated in his EEOC complaint.

In addition, he said Tesla management prided itself on an “open-door policy” but when he made attempts to bring these concerns about the work environment to management, they shut him out.

He said Tesla managers had a “roundtable” with employees once where they sought input.

“I brought out this list and she kept saying we don’t have no time,” he said.

“I said how can we have a roundtable when you won’t let me get these issues out?”

The African-American female former worker interviewed by News 4 said that she was a production assistant and received positive feedback of her work performance until the fall of 2018. That’s when she said two white co-workers on the safety team began criticizing her appearance.

From her earrings, to her clothing to her long nails, the woman said she was being targeted for her appearance, not her performance. She said she would later find out that her white co-workers were filing complaints about her, saying that she was “unapproachable” or “intimidating.”

“I was definitely being harassed,” she said.

“I was being singled out.”

Fearing retaliation if she spoke out more, she said she “kind of just took it in stride” and kept quiet after that. In fact, the EEOC complaints explain how other minority workers feared coming forward with complaints because they witnessed the backlash against those who did.

“I felt like if I said anything further there was my job, out the door,” she said.

Another African-American male said in his EEOC complaint that a black female co-worker told him that while showing a white co-worker a picture of her grandchild, the white coworker said “what a cute little monkey.”

“In one incident, one of the white leads claimed in the white team lead’s defense that he’s street like that, that’s how he talks” but that he would apologize to the person for using the n-word,’ he wrote in his EEOC complaint.

One of the former workers who spoke to News 4 said the lunchroom was segregated on his shift.

“We had to sit in the back of the cafeteria, they sat up front,” he said.

“It wasn’t that they said we had to, but that was the aura of the place because if we went up front it was like we was out of place, everybody looking at you like we’re the side show, we’re the clowns.”

The racial tension boiled over after Tesla hung posters around the plant to seek employee input on how it could be a better company.

A source familiar with the incident told News 4 Investigates that someone wrote on a bathroom poster “get rid of all the [n-word]s and Jews.”

Management didn’t tell anyone what was written on the poster but some workers had seen it.

One of the former workers who saw the racist note filed a complaint with Human Resources, but thought the department was “dismissive about it.”

Instead, management held what former workers described as a vague anti-discrimination meeting and there was never any follow-up with employees, they said.

One former worker who was at the meeting said co-workers were asked questions such as “What’s your favorite color” and “What’s your favorite sports team” and “Who did you vote for?” – all questions unrelated to the actual problem of discrimination inside the plant.

“It was a complete joke,” said the male African-American former employee interviewed by News 4.

Another former worker said in the EEOC complaint that although the racist note was upsetting, “it did not surprise me because of my observations of how minority workers were treated at the factory.”

 “I, like other workers of color, felt that the meeting about the racist note was ineffective and barely scratched the surface about the racism at the plant,” a former worker said in the complaint.

Ryan, the state lawmaker, said that it seems Tesla focuses a lot of time and energy on technological advances but less so on its human resources practices.

“It really paints an ugly picture for some of the human resource practices that are going on in that facility,” he said about the complaints.

“They seem like they have to quickly become a mature company to be able to deal with complaints like this and to stamp out these types of problems in the workforce and not letting them fester.”

Union efforts ongoing

Efforts to unionize at the plant have not succeeded.

The two former employees who spoke with News 4 said that a union could have helped with these problems, but the Buffalo plant does not have any representation.

In fact, none of the Tesla plants are unionized.

The Steelworkers in June and July filed complaints with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency tasked with protecting employees’ rights to organize.

The union complained that Tesla management “intentionally interfered” with unionizing efforts, conducted surveillance of union supporters and ultimately fired six pro-union workers, among other issues. Included in the NLRB complaints is a former employee’s April 28 letter to the state attorney general, describing a workplace where white workers used racial slurs on the job and were being favored for promotions.

In addition, the worker pointed out that most of the workers laid off in January were minorities.

“These layoffs were a complete cover up to get rid of minorities that they did not like and to prevent a union from forming,” the anonymous former worker reported.

Tesla denied this in the responses to the NLRB, and said that laid-off workers were selected based on seniority and the number of personal complaints in their files.

The union withdrew its complaints in August because it missed some filing deadlines and other reasons.

The former Tesla employees who spoke with News 4 said a union could have helped with the racial problems they described at the plant.

Ryan didn’t disagree, and said Western New York has a strong history with the industry and unions.

“It’s 2019, and the things we’re hearing coming out of this facility is like a 1920 workplace,” he said.

“I know they spend a lot of money and a lot of energy on trying to make technological improvements, but it looks like they are skipping all the parts to build the internal institutions to be a successful company. You can’t survive as a company allowing no mechanism to address complaints of workforce discrimination.”

The two African-American employees who spoke to News 4 said that they accepted the jobs at the Tesla plant in Buffalo because they believed in the mission and Musk.

But their experiences at Tesla’s taxpayer-subsidized facility shattered those dreams.

“This is the picture they painted for us: that it was going to be like a Ford, a Chevy, it was going to be a powerful plant here,” said the African American male who spoke to News 4.

“That’s the dreams they set up for us and we were so gullible at the beginning because we wanted that. Everybody. I’m talking black, white, Puerto Rican, we felt that this was our chance to better ourself and then when you see the shenanigans that they were playing, it was disheartening.”

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