Owen Diaz, right, and his son, Demetric, said they had heard racial slurs directed toward them while working at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif.CreditCreditRyan Christopher Jones for The New York Times
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-i-g-g-e-r,’ you know, all this,” said Mr. 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.
On that winter night in the factory, when, he said, a supervisor admitted drawing the figure as a joke, Mr. 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 Mr. Diaz, 50, who worked at the factory as a contractor for 11 months before he quit in May 2016.
It is a line that others say they reached, too.
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 Mr. 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 Ms. Spates, 30, who is African-American and joined Tesla two years ago.
Mr. Diaz, like Tesla itself, 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, Mr. 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 involved — 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. Dozens of other complaints against Tesla are pending, but the agency would not say how many involved race.
In an email to employees last year, which the company later released in response to one of the lawsuits, Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, warned against “being a huge jerk” to members of “a historically less represented group.” At the same time, he wrote, “if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology.”
But by many accounts, the issues at the Tesla factory go beyond the need for a thick skin.
When employees and contractors are counted together, there are more than 15,000 workers at the Fremont factory, but it is not clear how many are African-Americans. The company says more than two-thirds of the production leads — those directing work in different areas of the factory — are nonwhite. But it would not specify the share of jobs held by African-Americans, who have long been underrepresented in other Silicon Valley workplaces.
In any case, some African-American workers who expected to help build a future for the company and themselves, like Teshawna Stewart, say the reality proved to be a slap in the face.
Before starting at Tesla last year, Ms. Stewart, 25, sorted and packed orders at a nearby Amazon warehouse.
The job she landed installing taillights at the Tesla factory paid several dollars an hour more. But she discovered a downside when she was assigned to “the brick,” the production area for Model 3 sedans.
During several weeks when the Model 3 production line was not yet operating, Ms. Stewart said, she was frequently assigned to menial tasks, while workers of other races did work like sorting components.
In a sworn statement for a lawsuit, she said that when she had complained about “African-American employees being required to get down on our hands and knees and scrub the floor,” a human resources representative told her that she was “making up stories.”
Tesla said Ms. Stewart “did not raise these types of claims during her employment.” Ms. Spates, the production manager, said assembly workers were expected to handle other tasks if production was interrupted, but “nothing in terms of ‘get on your hands and knees.’” She does not recall working with Ms. Stewart.
In May, Ms. Stewart was fired for “job abandonment,” she said, after her team was assigned to a job in San Francisco for the day to help prepare cars for shipment to China. Tesla said she had been fired because she failed to return to the factory and had been given written warnings about her attendance. She said she had returned with the other workers, who were not African-American, and was the only one fired.
Like Ms. Stewart, Nigel Jones arrived at Tesla with high hopes. He was fresh out of the Army when he started as a temporary battery technician at Tesla in September 2015. Mr. Jones, now 26, quickly found the kind of rapid professional mobility often out of reach without a college degree. In about 22 months, he went from being an $ 18-an-hour contractor to making $ 85,000 a year as a mobile-equipment supervisor.
Then, on a busy afternoon in January during the ramp-up of Model 3 production, Mr. Jones said, he stopped to help two other African-American workers set up a water cart. A new manager questioned the group, and after Mr. Jones assured him that he had everything “under control,” the manager turned and muttered a vulgar racial epithet within 10 feet of the group, Mr. Jones recalled. His recollection was affirmed by a current employee who said he had witnessed it; he asked not to be identified.
Though he tried to “let that go,” Mr. Jones soon put a post on Facebook about growing tired of “subtle racial discrimination” at work. His mother said Mr. Jones had also told her about the incident two to three weeks later, shortly before he was fired.
Tesla said Mr. Jones had been “reprimanded numerous times for attendance and safety violations” and given a “final written warning” before being fired for attendance problems.
Mr. Jones denied having had attendance problems, attributing that account to the manager with whom he tangled. He looks back with regret that the prospect of a bright future didn’t pan out.
“Tesla, it is a cool company,” Mr. Jones said. “You sit there and you’re like, ‘This can’t be happening here.’”
A Settlement Offer
DeWitt Lambert, an African-American electrician, was not quite 40 when he left home in Mobile, Ala., in 2012 and drove to California in search of a job. Tesla hired him in June 2015 as a production associate, mostly installing seatbelts.
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, Mr. Lambert sent at least a dozen text messages, emails, photos and videos to human resources, copies show.
The evidence sent by Mr. 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, nigger.” 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,” Mr. Maron wrote in an email provided by Mr. Lambert’s lawyer.
Attached was a four-page document outlining information the company had collected to undermine Mr. Lambert’s claims. “Our C.E.O., 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.
Mr. 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, Mr. Lambert received a letter terminating his employment, saying the company had discovered acts “inconsistent with Tesla’s values.” Tesla said Mr. 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,” said Mr. Lambert, who is living at his mother’s house back in Alabama. “I got everything snatched from up under me since I complained about it.”
‘Not Tesla Material’
DeWayne Jones, 52, was a commercial truck driver in 2012 when he learned that Tesla was hiring. He was familiar with the factory, having worked there from 1992 to 1995, when it was the production site of a joint venture by General Motors and Toyota called Nummi.
Within about 90 days after starting at Tesla as a contract production associate, he became a full-time employee and saw his pay steadily climb from $ 17 to $ 21 an hour.
Mr. Jones (no relation to Nigel Jones) said he had then started to notice that black workers weren’t being promoted. In one case, he said, a manufacturing official told him that “people like you” didn’t move up to lead positions. He also reported that he had heard a supervisor say of black employees that “there’s too many of them in there, they are not Tesla material,” and that he had been at a meeting where a supervisor, gesturing toward African-American workers, remarked that “monkeys work outside.”
Tesla said there was no record of a formal complaint from Mr. Jones about racial insults.
The company also denied that there was any inequity in its career development practices. “You do a great job, you make your way here,” said the company’s head of diversity and inclusion, Felicia Mayo, who is African-American. After a year at the company, she was recently made a vice president.
Clarence Johnson, who came to Tesla four and a half years ago as a forklift driver and now tests equipment on a safety team — his second promotion — said his experience reflected opportunity.
While he said he could not speak for others, he added, “I’m an African-American male, and I didn’t have any of those roadblocks.”
Like Ms. Spates, he said supervisors would not tolerate racial slurs — though he said the use of a racial epithet “where it’s two people referring to one another as friends” was common.
For Mr. Jones, the route was not up but out. He said his children and a psychologist he had started seeing persuaded him to go back to truck driving.
“Everybody has a breaking point,” he said. “I’m able to breathe now.”
A Son’s Parallel Path
If Nummi represented the auto industry’s past, Owen Diaz was sure that Tesla was the future.
But that was before the racist effigy on the cardboard bale, and the slurs and offensive graffiti that came earlier. He 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.