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California sues Tesla, alleging rampant racism at factory

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Tesla has become a major automaker. It has also faced a slew of allegations of racism and sexual harassment from its employees. Now California's Agency for Fair Employment Claims is suing Tesla, accusing the company of creating a pervasively hostile environment for Black employees, which Tesla denies. NPR's Camila Domonoske joins us to talk about the case. Hi, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Elissa.

NADWORNY: So what kinds of allegations are in the lawsuit?

DOMONOSKE: Well, it accuses Tesla of allowing pervasive, egregious harassment and discrimination at the Fremont plant in Northern California. And the 39-page report lists example after example. It's just page after page of allegations - copious use of racial slurs, including the N-word, racist graffiti, Black workers and only Black workers assigned to scrub the floor on hands and knees, Black workers being denied promotions, being punished more severely than colleagues and being retaliated against. This is not about a single person or incident. It's sweeping, and the state's seeking monetary damages and an end to the behavior.

NADWORNY: How has Tesla responded to the lawsuit?

DOMONOSKE: In a blog post, Tesla denies that it tolerated this behavior. It says it has always disciplined employees who engage in misconduct. The company also says that the alleged misconduct appeared to cover a time period from 2015 to 2019 and that it's unfair to focus on events from, quote, "years ago." California disputes that, claiming the problems date back farther and are ongoing, with new complaints in 2022. Other parts of Tesla's response have nothing to do with the allegations of racism. Tesla said no company has done more for sustainability or the creation of clean energy jobs, and it criticized the state for suing Tesla, quote, "at a time when manufacturing jobs are leaving California."

NADWORNY: And this isn't the first time Tesla has been accused of having a hostile workplace. How have other cases ended?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. And to be clear, other carmakers have also faced these kinds of lawsuits. There's a long history of racism and sexual harassment in auto plants, and Tesla has been accused of both. But most relevant for this case, Tesla has faced multiple lawsuits over racism. The most famous was from Owen Diaz, who spoke with me this week. He worked at Fremont in 2015 and 2016. He sued, citing racist slurs and graffiti. He says he complained about a supervisor harassing him, and Tesla did not protect him.

OWEN DIAZ: This is a guy that drew a pickaninny and threatened me with physical violence. And I asked them to look at the cameras. And instead, they rewarded this guy.

DOMONOSKE: As in they gave him another job. Tesla fought this case and lost big. Last year, a jury awarded Diaz more than $100 million, most of that designed to punish Tesla. But Tesla has appealed and continues to defend its actions.

NADWORNY: What does Owen Diaz make of this new case?

DOMONOSKE: He says it's sad that his case apparently wasn't enough to change Tesla's approach.

DIAZ: We're living in 2022. It shouldn't have to be a Black person should have to go to work and refer to their job as a slave ship, as a plantation.

DOMONOSKE: Both of those phrases come up in this new lawsuit.

NADWORNY: What makes this California case so significant?

DOMONOSKE: Well, it's the state itself bringing the case on behalf of all Black Tesla workers. And that's a big deal because many of these workers cannot sue on their own. Tesla, like a lot of employers, uses arbitration clauses. And that means when people are hired, they have to sign away their right to take their company to court for anything. Instead, they go to arbitration, where companies are much more likely to win. Diaz didn't have an arbitration clause, so he got his day in court, but he thinks a lot about the people who didn't.

DIAZ: These arbitrations are not good. All it does is takes something that's really going on, sweeps it under the table and keeps it out of the public eye.

DOMONOSKE: So this lawsuit brings these stories into the public eye. And I'll note, Congress has banned arbitration clauses for sexual assault. Diaz would like them to ban it for racism, too.

NADWORNY: Yeah. NPR's Camila Domonoske, thank you so much.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.