Some Tesla factory employees say they’re being pressured to return to work

When Jessica Naro was informed that she was scheduled to report to work Wednesday at Tesla’s auto assembly plant in Fremont, California, her first thought was that it was not safe to do so.

She was worried about her health as the only caregiver for her family, but even more worried about being exposed to the virus and passing it on to her 6-year-old son. In March, he spent two weeks in a hospital for a condition he says makes him more vulnerable to serious complications if he gets the coronavirus.

“It was really difficult,” she said. “I never try to manage it again.”

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Naro is one of five workers who spoke to NBC News about concerns over Tesla’s efforts to reopen its plant despite an ongoing countywide health order put in place in mid-March to limit the spread of coronavirus . It is not known how many workers have returned to work, but from conversations with these five workers, many Tesla employees appear to have returned to the factory. But concern remains that public guarantees allowing them to return to work at their discretion are contradicted by internal pressures to help the company resume production of cars.

Naro, 25, works at night at the factory. She has been on leave since the end of March, when the county order forced the factory to shut down most of its operations. The order from the Alameda County Health Services Agency restricts non-essential businesses like Tesla to “minimal basic operations” until further notice. Tesla initially fought the order, arguing that it was an essential undertaking, but the police got involved and eventually obeyed. Yet on Monday, he acted again to defy order.

The county said in a declaration Tuesday evening, he received the Tesla-specific plan on Monday “as planned”. According to Governor Gavin Newsom’s order, a site-specific plan is required to reopen a manufacturing plant.

The county said it had reviewed the plan and made additional safety recommendations. If these are added to his plan and “public health indicators remain stable or improve,” Tesla could “start increasing its minimum business operations this week with a view to possible reopening next week”, according to the press release.

In recent weeks, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has become the most visible leader in challenging the limits on which companies are allowed to operate during the closings. Musk filed a lawsuit against local officials and threatened to move Tesla’s headquarters and assembly plant out of the state. He also regularly tweeted his skepticism about the necessity and legality of the closings, and spoke out against the closure of the economy, tweeting ““His efforts have received support .

Monday, Musk he would reopen the Fremont factory in violation of county ordinances, and he did resume operations That day.

Naro said she believed she was within her rights to determine when she was comfortable enough to return. After all, Musk wrote in an email to the workers about the reopening that if they “feel uncomfortable going back to work at that time, don’t feel pressured to do so”.

But Naro said she had reason to believe it was not. Naro said his supervisor told him over the phone that if she chose not to return as directed, she could be fired. However, she stated that she received a different email message, which did not contain any mention of termination. She indicated that she would no longer be eligible for unemployment insurance but that she could use unpaid leave without being penalized if she did not return to work.

The emails sent to employees and reviewed by NBC News confirm Naro’s story about the inability to take out unemployment insurance and the need to take unpaid leave. The California Employment Development Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether workers’ benefits would be affected.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Carlos Gabriel, 36, production associate at the Fremont plant, said that the human resources department had assured him that he would not lose his job or would not be punished if he did not return . But he said that being removed from leave if he chooses not to come back and get paid “is a penalty”.

Gabriel said it was not worth the risk to his health.

“I don’t think it’s a choice for me. I find my life a little more precious,” said Gabriel. “Are you asking me to free myself from my home to risk my life? Do you call that freedom?”

Tesla model 3 worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, said he was called last week and announced that he would be immediately put on leave if he did not accept to return to work on Monday.

He chose not to do it anyway.

“I will believe healthcare professionals before I believe Elon,” said the worker.

Catherine Fisk, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, said that California law protects employees from retaliation, including termination, for participating in a wide variety of protected activities such as denial of employment. perform an illegal act. If Alameda County prohibits the resumption of operations, employees can legally refuse to work.

“The problem for workers is that it is one thing to have a viable claim for illegal dismissal, and it is another thing to have a job,” said Fisk. “Having a possible trial does not pay the rent or put food on the table. And Tesla knows it. The threat is therefore very likely to intimidate some workers to force them to work.”

Tesla argued that the company was taking the necessary precautions to ensure that its employees did not run the risk of contracting coronavirus at work.

Tesla Saturday published a memo with its 38-page plan to ensure the safety of workers when production resumes. Steps include the need for additional personal protective equipment, strict cleaning and disinfection protocols, temperature control, and limited break room capacity.

But the county said it is still violating the order and must cease operations until the county health official “approves the site-specific plan for Tesla … and issues an order authorizing manufacturing in general “.

A factory production associate, who asked not to be appointed for fear of retaliation, said it was not clear at the outset what to do because the order was still in effect. But the partner finally returned on Tuesday.

“Some people have no choice,” said the associate. “It’s like we have to go in.”

The employee said Tesla was forcing returning workers to watch a short video with basic steps like washing their hands, staying 6 feet from people and covering their mouths when they sneeze.

The employees’ temperature was taken before entering the establishment and masks were worn. But other measures were more difficult to apply in the establishment, which measures 5.3 million square feet and is home to more than 10,000 workers.

“It’s hard to stay 6 feet from people,” said the employee. “It’s a production line. There are a lot of people.”

Musk and emailed the employees saying he would be on the production line “with everyone” and “would personally help wherever I can.” According to a source, he presented himself briefly on Monday and worked on the Model 3 line.

Musk, who tweeted that he was “relaunching production according to Alameda County rules,” also sent employees an email that some viewed as a defiant friction.

“I just wanted to send you a note of appreciation for working so hard to make Tesla successful. It’s so cool to see the factory come back to life and you do it !!” Musk said in the email, which was reviewed by NBC News. “An honest day devoted to building products or providing services useful to others is extremely honorable. I have a lot more respect for someone who takes pride in doing a good job, regardless of profession, than for a rich or famous person who does nothing useful. “

But not everyone was appeased.

Branton Phillips, 56, a handler at the Fremont plant, said he would not return to work until the order was lifted. His wife is in danger and he is concerned about her safety.

“I’m not trying to shirk at work. I need to work and I want to work, but the stress is already high on a production line without having to worry about it,” said Phillips. “This is the life of people, this is not a story of rinky-dink or dismantling of the union of Elon. It is the life of people.”