California sues Tesla, alleging ‘pervasive’ racism at Fremont factory

A front view of Tesla's car factory in Fremont, Calif.
Tesla’s car factory in Fremont, Calif.
(David Butow/David Butow/For The Times)

California’s civil rights regulator said it’s suing Tesla for racial discrimination after finding widespread harassment of Black workers at the electric car-maker’s factory near San Francisco.

The state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing received complaints from hundreds of workers and “found evidence that Tesla’s Fremont factory is a racially segregated workplace where Black workers are subjected to racial slurs and discriminated against in job assignments, discipline, pay and promotion creating a hostile work environment,” Kevin Kish, the agency’s director, said in a statement late Wednesday.

The complaint in Alameda County Superior Court wasn’t immediately available on the court’s website.


Tesla said in a Feb. 8 blog post — before the suit was filed — that the company “will be asking the court to pause the case and take other steps to ensure that facts and evidence will be heard.”

The DFEH said one Black worker told of hearing racial slurs as often as 50 to 100 times a day. Some who complained about the offensive language said supervisors and managers were active participants in the abuse or witnesses to it. On a daily basis, Black workers saw racist graffiti on restroom walls, lockers, benches, workstations, lunch tables and the break room, according to the agency’s emailed statement, which provided a detailed summary of its findings.

The agency is the state-level equivalent of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, with a mission to protect Californians from unlawful discrimination in employment, housing and accommodations. The DFEH informed Tesla on Jan. 3 that it had grounds to file a complaint. Tesla warned investors of the agency’s investigation in the annual report it filed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission this week.

Numerous complaints

Tesla has more than 99,000 employees globally, and the factory in Fremont employs more than 10,000 people. The car company headed by billionaire Elon Musk moved its headquarters from Palo Alto to Austin, Texas, last year.

Tesla has faced numerous complaints and lawsuits from former workers at its Fremont plant about racial discrimination and sexual harassment in recent years. Many complaints never make it to court because Tesla’s full-time employees sign agreements requiring workplace disputes to be handled in closed-door arbitration.

In October, a Black man who previously worked as a contractor for Tesla and complained of pervasive racism at the plant was awarded $137 million by a federal jury in San Francisco — believed to be the largest such verdict of its kind. The judge in the case signaled at a January hearing that he’ll probably reduce the award but won’t grant Tesla’s request for a new trial.

The DFEH said Black workers were more quickly cited or fired for minor infractions and denied promotions.

“For many Black and/or African American workers, the stress from the severe and pervasive racial harassment, the risk of a physical altercation and escalation with harassers, the blatant discrimination, the disproportionately severe discipline, and the futility of complaining, made the working conditions so intolerable that they resigned,” according to the statement.