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Tesla sued by California civil rights agency over racist treatment of Black employees

A worker wearing a face covering exits a Tesla Inc. vehicle at the company’s assembly plant in Fremont, California, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A California civil rights agency sued Tesla this week, alleging racist harassment of and discrimination against Black workers that has persisted for years at the company’s car assembly plant and other facilities in the state. The company warned it was facing this lawsuit in its annual financial filing Monday.

In its complaint, which became public on Thursday, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing says it conducted a three-year-long investigation, and received hundreds of complaints from Tesla workers.

The agency says it found evidence that Tesla, among other things:

  • Kept Black workers in the lowest level roles in the company, and paid them less than White and other colleagues.
  • Denied Black workers training and promotions, and disciplined them more severely than others.
  • Assigned Black workers more physically demanding work within the company’s factories.
  • Retaliated against Black workers who formally complained to human resources after supervisors and other colleagues used racist epithets to try to intimidate or degrade them.
  • Practically ignored complaints from Black workers who protested “the commonplace use of racial slurs on the assembly line.”
  • Moved unreasonably slowly to “clean up racist graffiti with swastikas and other hate symbols scrawled in common areas.”

The agency is asking the court to compel Tesla to end unequal treatment of Black employees and contractors, and to require Tesla to pay damages of an unspecified amount both to the DFEH and to workers who experienced this discrimination, essentially to make them whole, or to reinstate workers who were wrongly terminated.

Tesla put out a company blog post on Wednesday ahead of the lawsuit filing, in which they called it “misguided” and “a narrative spun by the DFEH and a handful of plaintiff firms to generate publicity.”

The DFEH suit focuses on Tesla’s treatment of Black and/or African American people, but not Latino, Asian and other employees who have also sued the company in the state alleging racial discrimination.

There are no Black executives at Tesla, and only 3% of professionals at the company’s Fremont car plant are Black, the DFEH alleges. However, 20% of the factory operatives at the company’s Fremont vehicle assembly plant are Black. That means Black people are “severely under-represented” in higher paying roles with more influence in the company.

Tesla did not disclose this level of detail in its annual diversity reports.

The agency also accused Tesla of failing to comply with state laws that require companies to provide anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training to workers and to investigate and address complaints about all workers, including full-time, contractors and others.

“Tesla had no written procedures for coordinating investigations into racial harassment involving workers from staffing agencies and did not provide standardized training to supervisors on how to conduct investigations into racial harassment,” the DFEH wrote.

Tesla and the DFEH did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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