In a lawsuit filed Monday, three former Tesla workers, all African American men, claim coworkers – and in some cases supervisors – routinely called them the N-word.
Owen Diaz, a former elevator operator inside the car maker’s Fremont factory, says coworkers began to harass him shortly after he started in June of 2015. He says they called him the N-word and told him to “go back to Africa.” He says he even found drawings depicting derogatory images of African Americans placed around the factory.
Diaz tried to ignore it, but says what happened to his son nearly broke him. Demetric Diaz, just 19 years old at the time, worked on the production line.
“I was turning the corner, I was coming out to give my son his lunch, and his supervisor started calling him a [expletive] [n-word],” he said.
Both men say they complained to the staffing agencies that placed them at Tesla. Owen Diaz sent an email to his boss, a Tesla employee, saying he didn’t feel safe around a coworker who he says harassed him. But they say nothing changed, until Demetric was let go a few months after he started, and Owen quit not even a year into the job.
“Couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
A third complainant is also named in the lawsuit against Tesla and the staffing agencies. They’re not the first workers to make allegations of racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
In March, a production associate filed a suit against the iconic car maker, alleging the company failed to protect him from ongoing racial harassment despite making repeated complaints. One instance was captured on video. Coworkers filmed themselves calling the man the N-word and threatening to cut him up.
Tesla’s managing counsel says the company started an investigation, but failed to see it through after the representative handling the investigation left the company. Tesla took action against the men in the video more than six months later when the company reopened the case.
The company declined an interview request to discuss the most recent accusations. In a statement, a Tesla spokesperson said the company “takes any and every form of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously.”
The company says it doesn’t seek to avoid responsibility in instances where it’s at fault, but says that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Tesla says it’s found no evidence the men made complaints about racist language or behavior and says none of the workers ever brought a claim against the company until now.
The company is questioning why the men didn’t first make discrimination allegations to regulators, which is normally what happens in these sort of cases, and claims the lawsuit is the result of a negative media campaign by one lawyer.
Larry Organ of the California Civil Rights Law Group, also filed the lawsuit on behalf of Dewitt Lambert – the man at the center of racist threats captured on video. Tesla won the motion directing the case to arbitration. Organ then brought the case to federal court under the Civil Rights Act – a move Tesla says shows he’s shopping for a more favorable forum. The company claims he is preparing a negative media campaign against Tesla.
But Organ says the legal action is a way to force the company to educate workers about acceptable workplace conduct.
“This conduct is illegal,” he said.
Tesla says it now requires all employees to complete anti-harassment training, and recently created a team to investigate workplace concerns and recommend disciplinary action to improve employee behavior.
“We will never be able to stop every single person in the factory from engaging in inappropriate conduct,” a Tesla spokesperson said in a statement, “but we will continue to do everything that we can to encourage the right behavior and to take action whenever something bad happens.”