State senator calls Tesla complaints ‘disturbing’

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State Senator Tim Kennedy had some strong words for Tesla after former employees leveled complaints against the company’s Buffalo plant.

News 4 Investigates reported Monday that former Tesla employees complained about failing equipment, slow production of the company’s Solar Roof panels and the lack of urgency and supervision at the Buffalo facility.

Employees also doubted the job numbers released last year by Tesla and state officials.

“We immediately contacted Tesla, we let them know that if these allegations were in fact true, certainly they were disturbing and raised eyebrows,” Kennedy said.

“We wanted to know the answers.”

Kennedy said the two former Tesla employees interviewed by News 4, Dennis Scott and Dale Witherell, had also contacted his office with the same complaints.

“We are yet to get a formal written response from Tesla on these questions,” he said.

Kennedy said he became “infuriated” when he learned that Tesla let go of some 50 employees at the Buffalo plant. The layoffs are part of a global 7 percent cut in Tesla’s workforce.

The solar plant in Buffalo was built and equipped by $750 million in state taxpayer money. The project is the crown jewel of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development program.

“I believe strongly that they should have left our community alone, that they should not have made cuts in Buffalo at this particular plant given the incredible infusion of resources to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars that we have invested,” Kennedy said.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk told employees by email in January that the company’s products, which include electric cars, energy storage systems and the Solar Roof, are still too expensive, so there was no choice but to cut costs by reducing the workforce.

As for the number of employees who work at the Tesla plant, Kennedy said he was assured by Empire State Development, the economic development arm of the state, that the plant does indeed employ 800 people.

A spokeswoman for Empire State Development said that “Panasonic is now the largest employer at Riverbend,” but ESD did not release exact job numbers. 

“The one protection that was built into the contract signed between Tesla and Empire State Development was a claw-back provision that really protected the taxpayers’ investment that at the end of the day if they’re hitting their goals, those benchmarks when they are due, for job creation that they’re on the hook for $41.2 million each time they don’t hit those job creation goals,” Kennedy said.

“But the fact that these conversations are out there of former employees is certainly concerning, quite frankly it’s disturbing.”  

For 2017, Tesla said it reported a total of 467 employees at Gigafactory 2 (Tesla and Panasonic combined). At the end of 2018, Tesla and state officials reported 800 employees worked at the facility, approximately half Panasonic and half Tesla. Tesla said it expects to report similar job numbers in 2019. 

Empire State Development said Tesla will reach its first employment milestone in April. That will trigger reporting requirements from Tesla, to prove the returned investment in the state and more validation of the job numbers. ESD said that it can request contractual invoices, cancelled checks and corporate affidavits to verify Tesla is meeting its obligation to spend $5 billion in New York over the next decade. 

To validate job data, ESD said it can conduct onsite audits, request a list of employees from Tesla and obtain data from the state Department of Labor to crosscheck the figures reported by Tesla.

“We have two of the leading clean energy companies in the world in Buffalo at the Riverbend facility,” ESD said in a statement. “Tesla produces their innovative solar roof tiles ‎largely for development and testing with the goal of full scale launch in the future. 

Through ongoing visits and active work with Tesla and Panasonic, the state believes they will meet their employment goals,” Empire State Development said in a statement.

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