Nonetheless, the company appears to have overwritten the policy in late May when county officials formally allowed the company to restart production, prompting Tesla to return to normal protocol even as cases in the factory’s home county of Alameda rose.
“We’ll be reinstating our Attendance Policy this Friday, May 22,” a Tesla human resources email to employees dated May 20 said, spelling out a new provision. “If an employee does not want to come to work out of concern that they might expose an at-risk member of their household, HR will provide the employee with a document the employee can sign and submit to confirm their situation and receive Unpaid Leave until May 31.”
But the workers said they thought Musk’s order stood and they could continue at home unpaid. The workers followed the HR guidance, then kept their supervisors updated about their situations starting in June, acknowledging they remained concerned about being exposed. Their managers, they said, were understanding and allowed them to remain home for myriad reasons: fear of exposing a 1-year-old son who was born with respiratory problems in one case, an aging stepfather cared for by the Tesla worker in another and a fiancee who had recent heart surgery and suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
By the end of June, Tesla told the workers they had abandoned their jobs and fired them, they said.
“The company, Elon included, they don’t really care about the health and well-being of the employees,” said Nayo Miller, 39, of Richmond, Calif., who received a termination notice on June 26 alleging he had abandoned his job. “The manufacturing of the vehicles supersedes our safety.”
The firings also came days after other workers said they had received termination notices for staying home during the pandemic, although at least one said they kept their job.
Tesla and Alameda County officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Tesla has come under fire for its treatment of workers as the pandemic has stretched on. Musk initially defied the stay-at-home orders by keeping the plant open in March as the county had begun ordering businesses to close. Ultimately, local officials declared the company was not an essential business and Tesla agreed to wind down to “minimum basic operations.” From there, a contentious back-and-forth ensued, as Musk complained about pandemic-related restrictions, citing the financial risk they posed to the company. Musk initially dismissed the coronavirus panic as “dumb” and speculated there would be “probably close to zero new cases” in the United States by the end of April.
Then in April, Musk took his frustrations to Twitter, writing “FREE AMERICA NOW” in response to widespread stay-at-home orders. The next day, on the company’s earnings call, he hurled profanities and called quarantine measures “fascist” as he demanded officials return people’s freedom. In May, Musk defiantly reopened the factory, winning the support of President Trump.
Alameda County officials finally agreed to allow Tesla to fully reopen May 18, even though the company had already been producing cars for at least a week.
Several of the workers who opted to remain home after June 1, two of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because the conditions of their employment barred them from speaking to the media, have now been fired or left in the dark about their job status. Some say they feel abandoned by Musk.
“His word doesn’t mean anything to his employees,” said one worker at Tesla’s seat assembly facility, who received a termination notice on June 26 alleging he had abandoned his job, despite being in regular contact with a manager and company HR about plans to stay home. “If he says one thing right now, 10 seconds later he turns his back on his employees.”
The seat facility is where The Washington Post first reported that Tesla told employees of at least two positive coronavirus cases, affecting both the morning and evening shifts, after its May reopening.
The worker, a welder, has a 1-year-old son who was born with respiratory problems. He said he was relieved when Musk said workers need not feel obligated to return if they felt uncomfortable. He was in regular contact with a supervisor, communicating his plans to stay home. Tesla told him he would have to apply for Family and Medical Leave Act benefits, indicating there was no company exception that would allow him to take unpaid leave. Ultimately, he was fired by Tesla.
“I don’t trust them anymore,” he said.
At the main plant, workers on the production line piled into cars they were building, sitting next to each other as they were installing components such as steering wheels and side bolsters. Equipment was not wiped down between shifts, employees said.
“I mean, it’s dangerous,” said another worker, who had been back to the plant before opting to stay home out of concern for his fiancee, who had heart surgery last year and suffers from COPD. “There’s 15, 20 people standing right up on each other, front to back at the time clock in a group. When they sit down and eat, everybody’s right up on each other, mask down and everything.”
The worker opted to stay home after breaking out in cold sweats and struggling to breathe through a mask.
“I started feeling uncomfortable — I started feeling like they weren’t really doing anything for us,” said the worker, who later tested negative for the coronavirus.
The worker had not received the same job abandonment notice but was told in mid-June that he would be terminated for not reporting to work. He has been removed from Tesla’s email and attendance systems and doesn’t know if he would accept an offer to return.
“It’s not the job that I loved before,” he said. “Everything is completely different. I feel worried for the safety of my friends who still work there.”