BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The number of former Buffalo Tesla employees who are minorities alleging a racist, hostile work environment plagued by favoritism has doubled since News 4 Investigates first reported about the complaints in November.
News 4 Investigates reported in November that six former workers filed complaints with both the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Division of Human Rights, alleging favoritism, racism and a hostile work environment where minorities would be passed over for promotions given to white workers.
The complaints prompted the Office of the Attorney General to interview the six complainants for a “pending investigation.”
Since then, six more workers have inquired about filing similar complaints with both agencies. Two of them spoke with News 4 Investigates about some of the experiences they had working at the Tesla factory in Buffalo at Riverbend, on the condition that they remain anonymous out of concern of retaliation by Tesla.
“What I encountered working in Tesla was just a very hostile environment is probably an understatement,” said one African American worker who was fired in June 2019 for “excessive cell phone use.”
“So, a typical day at work would be a very pressurized vacuum where people are isolated and not given a lot of room for growth and for expansion.”
Tesla has refused to respond to questions from News 4 Investigates. Kristen Kavanaugh, senior staff partner for Diversity and Inclusion at Tesla, did not respond to LinkedIn messages seeking comment.
State taxpayers paid $959 million to build and equip the sprawling factory near the Buffalo River. But they’ve been given no information on the return of their investment. In fact, state officials didn’t even publicly announce that the cost of the project ballooned past the initial $750 million that they had to spend.
Controversy has engulfed the plant from day one. Work was slow to start at the factory.
First, Tesla bought out SolarCity, who was planning to work out of the Buffalo facility. That sale is now the center of a civil suit in which shareholders allege the purchase was a $2 billion bailout for a struggling company owned by Lyndon and Peter Rive, the cousins of Tesla CEO and former SolarCity board member, Elon Musk.
Tesla hit the brakes on its Solar Roof, which is supposed to be made in Buffalo, at least twice. Only now are Solar Roofs beginning to be installed on a more frequent basis, but it is unclear how many the company has installed to date.
Now, there are questions of whether Tesla actually makes the Solar Roof in Buffalo or if it is made in China as some of the packaging materials indicate.
Former employees painted a grim picture of the plant last year, telling News 4 Investigates that production goals were constantly missed, employees spent more time on their phones without much direct supervision and that the factory seemed to be mismanaged.
There were concerns raised this past spring of whether Tesla would meet its hiring targets for Buffalo, where it must employ 1,460 workers by April of this year or face a $42.2 million fine from the state.
And in November, the six former employees laid off in January filed complaints with the EEOC and NYSDOHR, citing favoritism, racism and hostile work conditions.
All of this comes at a time when Tesla is beginning to ramp up hiring to meet that state employment goal due in less than three months. Tesla has only recently posted for Buffalo jobs on its website.
Nonetheless, Tesla has weathered this controversy well.
The company’s stock price has more than doubled in six months, fresh off its fourth quarter earnings call, when it reported a profit with record deliveries of its electric vehicles. On Monday, its stock price jumped almost 20 percent to $808, it’s biggest single-day gain in six years
During the earnings call in late January, CEO Elon Musk said the Buffalo factory “is doing great,” without any specifics that are typically missing from his comments about the local operation.
Worker relations problems inside Tesla plants are not new.
The New York Times reported in November 2018 about complaints of racism and favoritism at its car factory in California. Some of these complaints have turned into lawsuits.
Here in Buffalo, the complaints about the work environment at Tesla began to surface this past year.
For example, one of the former African American workers told us that company managers would throw wild accusations at minority employees, including himself, without any proof. Or managers would praise someone’s work performance one dayt only to bring them into the office the next day to write them up for a work infraction.
“They create these micro-managing style rules to weed people out,” the former employee said.
“Just on general behavior, things that everyone does. If you go to the bathroom, all of the sudden that’s leveraged into you taking extra breaks. If you have to go into the hallway to check on your cellphone, which is perfectly normal, which is in their guidelines, that’s then leveraged to you trying to get out of doing your production.”
This former Tesla worker said the situation got so bad that he’d feel bad once he hit the vast parking lot for work.
“It honestly felt like when you went to work, in a real sense, it felt like you were guilty.,” he said.
“You just walked in the door and you felt like you were guilty of something and it was almost on a daily basis waiting to be accused of something.”
In January 2019, Tesla fired 7% of its workforce, including 57 employees in Buffalo (Tesla said it was 50 employees). The EEOC complaint states that 80 percent of those fired were minorities.
Tesla and its partner, Panasonic, employ about 800 workers at the facility, about half of which are Tesla workers.
The newest six former Tesla employees who have come forward have all inquired about filing their own EEOC and NYSDOHR complaints, but none have to date.
“There was a lot of favoritism going on,” said a second former African American Tesla employee.
“There was a lot of ‘you have to be a yes man’ to make it there. You have to be a part of the in crowd or you’re not really going to make it here.”
This former worker said he tried to address the factory concerns with the human resources officials. He’d also raise some of these concerns during the town hall type meetings Tesla used to have.
He mentioned how the unfair promotion rules did not appear to apply to everyone.
He said the open-door policy Tesla managers claimed to have seemed to only shut doors in his face whenever he tried to address these concerns about favoritism in the plant and some white workers using racial epithets.
He said managers would give random excuses when these topics came up. They’d respond with “we heard about this but haven’t had time to discuss it” or “we heard this before and we haven’t had time to look into it.”
“What’s taking you all so long?” the second former worker said.
“If you all heard it from more than one party it obviously has to have some type of validity to it. After that, I just continued to apply pressure, sent emails out to my supervisor, to HR, to my plant manager in regards to the situation that I seen and from there I was labeled as a person who liked to start conflict.”
In contrast, when this employee was accused by a white employee of making a threat, Tesla launched a full investigation and placed the African American on leave. He was returned to work but put on final notice. At that point, he became known as a “problem starter,” he said.
He was eventually terminated when he had to call into work because he got stranded when his car broken down, even though his supervisor approved his absence.
“I don’t have a problem with Tesla,” he said.
“I just have a problem with the people, the people that’s in positions, the people that’s in power and it’s just like that throughout. You need to change the culture, change the environment. And so unless we speak out about it, unless somebody says something about it, and somebody listens…Like I said, I brought it to HR, to my supervisor, it fell on deaf ears.”