Tesla work­ers say they pay the price for Elon Musk's big prom­ises

The Guardian Australia - - Science / Technology - Ju­lia Car­rie Wong in San Fran­cisco

It was “a mas­ter class in emo­tional in­tel­li­gence”, raved the busi­ness mag­a­zineInc, and “a pow­er­ful les­son in au­then­tic, heart­felt lead­er­ship”. Elon Musk, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Tesla, had emailed his en­tire staff fol­low­ing the May 2017 pub­li­ca­tions of sep­a­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tions by the Guardian and a work­place safety or­ga­ni­za­tion show­ing high in­jury rates at the com­pany’s north­ern Cal­i­for­nia elec­tric car fac­tory.

“No words can ex­press how much

I care about your safety and well­be­ing,” Musk wrote. “Go­ing for­ward, I’ve asked that ev­ery in­jury be re­ported di­rectly to me, with­out ex­cep­tion. I’m meet­ing with the safety team ev­ery week and would like to meet ev­ery in­jured per­son as soon as they are well, so that I can un­der­stand from them ex­actly what we need to do to make it bet­ter. I will then go down to the pro­duc­tion line and per­form the same task that they per­form.”

Musk, an ac­count­abil­ity Hou­dini, had turned the fact that some of his em­ploy­ees were deal­ing with lifechang­ing in­juries into glow­ing press about his lead­er­ship. If only his prom­ises were true.

“He didn’t meet with me,” said Richard Or­tiz, a for­mer Tesla fac­tory worker who was in­jured at work in July 2017.

“That’s PR; that’s bologna,” said an­other cur­rent Tesla em­ployee, who said Musk had never met with him about the three pinched nerves in his arm.

“He didn’t meet with me, and my in­ci­dent was filed,” said a third Tesla em­ployee, who was in­jured in Oc­to­ber. “If he was truly go­ing to meet with all the em­ploy­ees who got in­jured, he would be here for half the year.”

Whether Musk ever in­tended to fol­low through on his word to meet “ev­ery in­jured per­son” is an open ques­tion. But in con­ver­sa­tions with more than 10 cur­rent and for­mer Tesla em­ploy­ees over the past month, work­ers de­scribed the con­se­quences of hav­ing a boss whose bom­bas­tic prom­ises – to share­hold­ers, to cus­tomers and to them – fre­quently go un­ful­filled. While the bil­lion­aire’s loose tongue and overly op­ti­mistic pro­nounce­ments may still ex­cite his le­gions of fans and cus­tomers, many fac­tory work­ers feel that they have be­come col­lat­eral dam­age.

Of the work­ers who spoke to the Guardian for this article, six had been in­jured at work. None of them ever heard di­rectly from Musk or had him per­form their task on the assem­bly line.

A Tesla spokesman said that Musk had met with in­jured work­ers “many times” and worked on the assem­bly line “many times” and pro­vided the names of 10 work­ers that they said could at­test to this. “Elon is in the fac­tory, on the pro­duc­tion line, nearly ev­ery day,” the spokesman said of Musk, who is also the CEO of two com­pa­nies, SpaceX and the Bor­ing Com­pany, that are based in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. “A sig­nif­i­cant part of his time is spent talk­ing di­rectly with pro­duc­tion em­ploy­ees about what im­prove­ments they would like to see or con­cerns they have.”

“I’ve only been here for five months, and I’ve seen [Musk] four or five times,” said Jimmy Gua­jardo, who works on the Model 3 and is em­ployed by a sub­con­tracted temp agency. “It felt re­ally good see­ing him on the line.”

Of the 10 work­ers whose names Tesla pro­vided, the Guardian was able to reach four, in­clud­ing Gua­jardo. None of the four had ever been in­jured, but they all praised Musk and said they had seen him at the fac­tory.

Or­tiz, an out­spo­ken sup­porter of a union­iza­tion drive at the fac­tory, ar­gued that even if Musk had per­formed ev­ery in­jured work­ers’ job, it’s un­likely the ex­pe­ri­ence would have helped the CEO truly un­der­stand the chal­lenges and dan­gers of the work.

“Any­one can do any­thing for an hour,” Or­tiz said. “You have to do it like we do it, 12 hours a day, six days a week … Live the life we live. That’s where the wear and tear comes from.”

Musk’s pledge to meet with ev­ery in­jured worker is by no means the only ex­am­ple of his over-promis­ing. The CEO is no­to­ri­ous for mak­ing ex­ag­ger­ated claims about his busi­nesses, whether he was an­nounc­ing that he had re­ceived gov­ern­ment ap­proval for a New York to Wash­ing­ton DC hy­per­loop (he hadn’t), promis­ing to test drive a fully au­ton­o­mous Tesla coast-to-coast by the end of 2017 (he didn’t), or claim­ing that the Model 3 pro­duc­tion would reach 5,000 cars per week by the end of 2017 (it still hasn’t).

To one worker, an im­mi­grant who started at Tesla in 2017, the con­trast be­tween what Musk prom­ises and what he does is in­dica­tive of a lack of “prin­ci­ples”.

“In my coun­try we have a say­ing, ‘Even if your en­emy is a rab­bit, you should at least rec­og­nize that he has big ears,” he said. “I like Elon Musk … I like peo­ple who dream big.”

But, he added, “I’m al­ways re­ally sur­prised how he keeps giv­ing num­bers that we have never been able to re­spect. He would say we would pro­duce such and such cars by such date, and we are never able to hit it. For me, a re­spon­si­ble per­son should stick to his word.

“As a Tesla em­ployee, I am re­ally ashamed when my CEO is ly­ing to the pub­lic.”

‘I couldn’t be­lieve he said that’

Though Tesla fac­tory em­ploy­ees may have learned to take Musk’s words with a grain of salt, the bil­lion­aire’s pro­nounce­ments – whether is­sued by com­pany email, in­vestor earn­ings call, the press, or Twit­ter – still loom large over the work­place.

In May 2017, Musk emailed the en­tire com­pany a mes­sage about “do­ing the right thing” – ie be­ing con­sid­er­ate of mi­nori­ties and “not be­ing a huge jerk”.

The email resur­faced later that year, as Tesla was hit with a num­ber of law­suits from em­ploy­ees al­leg­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment, gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism, and ho­mo­pho­bia in the work­place. (Tesla has de­nied wrong­do­ing.) One of the law­suits took par­tic­u­lar is­sue with one line in the Musk email that read: “In fair­ness, if some­one is a jerk to you, but sin­cerely apol­o­gizes, it is im­por­tant to be thick-skinned and ac­cept that apol­ogy.”

Tesla de­fended the email in a blog­post, ar­gu­ing that the “coun­ter­point” to not hav­ing a thick skin and ac­cept­ing an apol­ogy “would be a cold world with no for­give­ness and no heart”.

But to some Tesla work­ers, the email was per­ceived as a green light for ha­rass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“I couldn’t be­lieve he said that,” said one Tesla worker, who is black and has worked for the com­pany since Oc­to­ber 2014. “That’s like he opened the door for his HR and man­age­ment teams to act ac­cord­ingly.”

The worker, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause he fears be­ing fired, said that he feels he is treated like “a dummy” be­cause he is black.

“Things said have made me feel like I was be­ing called a nig­ger,” he said. “I don’t think peo­ple of color should have to have thick skin when it comes to racial is­sues in the work­place, as Elon’s email sug­gested.”

An­other Tesla fac­tory worker, Bran­ton Phillips, also said that Musk’s “thick skin” line has been adopted as an ex­cuse for bad be­hav­ior.

“I would never have my daugh­ter work in there,” the 55-year-old ma­te­ri­als han­dler said. “It’s like a night­club at­ti­tude; it’s wrong. The leads and su­per­vi­sors that see [ha­rass­ment], they don’t want to make a big deal. They all say, ‘Have a thick skin… Hey girl, have a thick skin.’”

A third Tesla worker, a US army vet­eran, con­curred that telling peo­ple to have a “thick skin” had be­come the “dis­mis­sive phi­los­o­phy” of Tesla’s man­age­ment, adding that he had heard work­ers “out­right call peo­ple the N-word with lit­tle to no reper­cus­sions”.

“Tesla is ab­so­lutely against any form of dis­crim­i­na­tion, ha­rass­ment, or un­fair treat­ment of any kind,” the com­pany spokesman said. The spokesman de­nied that the email was a sig­nal to any­one not to take ha­rass­ment se­ri­ously.

Racial slurs aren’t the only lan­guage that the army vet­eran ob­jected to. This spring, in two-emails to com­pany staff, and on an earn­ings call with in­vestors, Musk de­buted new lan­guage to de­scribe a prob­lem weigh­ing down the good-ship Tesla: “bar­na­cles”.

“The num­ber of … third-party con­tract­ing com­pa­nies that we’re us­ing has re­ally got­ten out of con­trol, so we’re go­ing to scrub the bar­na­cles on that front,” he said on the in­vestor call. “We’ve got bar­na­cles on bar­na­cles. So there’s go­ing to be a lot of bar­na­cle re­moval.”

A Tesla spokesper­son said that Musk was re­fer­ring to con­trac­tor com­pa­nies, not sub­con­tracted em­ploy­ees. But what­ever Musk’s intent, the words were in­ter­preted as an in­sult by some of the hun­dreds of fac­tory work­ers Tesla hires through sub­con­tracted staffing agen­cies.

“When the big al­pha dog of the fac­tory uses that word to de­scribe peo­ple, it al­lows other peo­ple in the fac­tory to start think­ing about peo­ple like that and act­ing that way,” said the vet­eran, who worked for Tesla through a con­tracted staffing agency for eight months be­fore

be­ing hired di­rectly. He com­pared the rhetor­i­cal tac­tic to Don­ald Trump call­ing cer­tain coun­tries “shit­holes” or the US mil­i­tary de­hu­man­iz­ing en­emy sol­diers with slurs.

“When Elon calls lower-paid work­ers bar­na­cles, then you have man­agers say­ing, ‘Get out of here bar­na­cle,” he told the Guardian a few days af­ter Musk’s earn­ings call. “I’ve heard that word more in the last week than in the rest of my life.”

‘The main ex­port is in­juries, not cars’

When an en­gi­neer with ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in the mil­i­tary and pri­vate sec­tor went to work for Tesla in 2016, it didn’t take long for him to start to feel un­easy about his new job as a pro­gram man­ager.

“They were try­ing to drive home that if you want to go work for a com­pany that will give you enough time to do your job, then this isn’t the place,” the en­gi­neer, who has since left the com­pany, said of his ori­en­ta­tion. “I came from a back­ground where process was a good thing. At Tesla, the time it took to say the word ‘process’ was too long.”

For the en­gi­neer and many of the rank and file fac­tory work­ers, there was a di­rect link be­tween Musk’s ag­gres­sive pro­duc­tion pro­jec­tions and their own work­ing con­di­tions. For some em­ploy­ees, like the en­gi­neer, the high stress and long hours in­ter­fered with hav­ing any kind of fam­ily life. For oth­ers, how­ever, work­ing at Tesla has left them with life-al­ter­ing in­juries.

“Just that one day at Tesla, holy moly it changed my life,” said Mark Vasquez, 40, of the day in 2015 when he per­ma­nently in­jured his back while work­ing at Tesla. He lost his apart­ment when he was as­signed “light duty” work that paid a sig­nif­i­cantly lower wage, had to sell many of his be­long­ings to make ends meet, and still deals with pain and numb­ness in his legs.

“I don’t go out,” he said. “I hardly see my friends. It’s de­press­ing to have them see me like this. I can’t walk for 10 min­utes with­out get­ting winded and hav­ing to stop and sit down … When I have to go to the stores, I have to use one of those elec­tric scooter carts, and I don’t want to do that.”

An­other fac­tory worker de­tailed hav­ing two surg­eries to ad­dress carpal tun­nel and ten­dini­tis in both hands – in­juries he at­tributes to work­ing 12 hour shifts, six days a week, on sus­pended ve­hi­cles with his arms above his head.

“If I were a lazier per­son, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be in­jured at all,” said the worker, who said he is still in con­stant pain. While he is still em­ployed by Tesla, he finds the “light duty” tasks that he gets as­signed to be hu­mil­i­at­ing, like “stand­ing in front of the class with a dunce cap”.

But the worker, who is 41 and started at Tesla in 2014, doesn’t see a lot of other op­tions. “The prob­lem is that ev­ery­thing that I know how to do is with my hands,” he said. “Ev­ery­thing that I ever heard of do­ing is with my hands, and I can’t do it.”

The Tesla spokesman de­fended the com­pany, say­ing: “Pro­duc­tion will never take prece­dence over safety – and the num­bers demon­strate this. Last year, when pro­duc­tion in­creased 20%, our in­jury rate de­clined more than 20%.”

A ma­jor in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Re­port­ing’s Re­veal has cast se­ri­ous doubt over Tesla’s claims about its in­jury rates, which must be re­ported to work­place safety reg­u­la­tors. Re­veal found that Tesla had kept in­juries off its books, mak­ing the com­pany’s safety record look bet­ter than it was, and the gov­ern­ment has opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In re­cent months, three law­suits have been filed against Tesla al­leg­ing that the com­pany is vi­o­lat­ing Cal­i­for­nia la­bor laws by, among other things, fail­ing to pro­vide work­ers with legally man­dated breaks. Tesla said that it “goes above and be­yond above and be­yond the re­quire­ments of Cal­i­for­nia and fed­eral law in pro­vid­ing all work­ers with meal and rest breaks and ap­pro­pri­ate over­time pay.”

“There have been plenty of times that I had to pick be­tween eat­ing or us­ing the bath­room,” said one em­ployee. “It’s not about time away from work, but time to re­fuel our­selves and re­lieve our­selves. No one can work 100% if they re­ally have to go to the bath­room.”

Be­tween the pres­sure, the long hours, and the dif­fi­culty of the work, the fac­tory had be­come a “per­fect storm” for in­juries, said Phillips. “There’s not a big safety cul­ture, and they’re push­ing the kids su­per hard for pro­duc­tion. It’s just go­ing to be in­juries ev­ery­where.”

The army vet­eran put it an­other way: “This com­pany is pump­ing in alu­minum, and the main ex­port is in­juries, not cars.”

As me­dia scru­tiny of the in­jury rates con­tin­ues, how­ever, Musk has be­gun speak­ing about the is­sue with his usual lack of re­straint.

“We’re well on our way to an in­jury rate that’s less than half of the auto in­dus­try,” he said at the com­pany’s share­holder meet­ing in June 2017. As Re­veal doc­u­mented in its re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the com­pany’s over­all in­jury rate for 2017 ended up be­ing slight­ing above the in­dus­try average.

When Tesla share­hold­ers met for their an­nual meet­ing this year, Musk played the same card, as­sert­ing that the com­pany has “a good shot” at hav­ing an in­jury rate of half the in­dus­try average for 2018. Dur­ing the meet­ing’s ques­tion and an­swer ses­sion, one share­holder asked Musk about his reg­u­lar fail­ure to meet the time­lines he sets.

“This is some­thing I’m try­ing to get bet­ter at,” Musk said. “I’m a fairly op­ti­mistic per­son.”

You have to do it like we do it, 12 hours a day, six days a week … That’s where the wear and tear comes from

Pho­to­graph: Tesla

Tesla work­ers in the Fre­mont fac­tory.

Pho­to­graph: Joe Skip­per/Reuters

Work­ers in­side the Tesla fac­tory speak of in­tense dead­lines and in­juries.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.