SAN FRANCISCO — A half dozen women are suing Tesla alleging the electric vehicle company fostered a culture of sexual harassment at its Fremont, Calif., plant and other facilities, where female employees say they were subjected to lewd comments and catcalling, physically intimate touching and discrimination.
The six women bringing lawsuits described a number of common experiences in both interviews with The Washington Post and in legal filings. Several women alleged they complained about the behavior, but that it didn’t change; other women said because their superiors participated in the harassment, they feared talking to human resources. Multiple women alleged they attempted to protect themselves from harassment by procuring baggy clothes in an effort to fend off their co-workers. A number of women alleged their workplace experience led to depression and anxiety, ultimately preventing them from advancing in their careers.
Jessica Brooks, who works at the Fremont seat factory, alleged the harassment was so extreme she stacked boxes around her work station to deter men from ogling and whistling at her. In a legal complaint and an interview with The Post, she says she bought flannel shirts at a thrift store to tie around her waist, in an effort to conceal her backside and prevent men from directing lewd comments at her.
“I was so tired of the unwanted attention and the males gawking at me, I proceeded to create barriers around me just so I could get some relief,” said Brooks, who lives in Contra Costa County. “That was something I felt necessary just so I can do my job.”
Brooks alleges she complained to human resources, but the behavior was not addressed. Instead, she said, she was moved to a different part of the factory. (The Post viewed a message from Tesla human resources dating from November confirming it had investigated Brooks’s complaint.) She is currently on stress-related leave, she said.
The complaints follow a similar lawsuit filed last month in which another factory employee, Jessica Barraza, alleged “rampant sexual harassment at Tesla” and “nightmarish conditions” in its factories. Tesla has not yet responded publicly to those allegations. A former SpaceX engineer, Ashley Kosak, alleged in a recent essay that SpaceX didn’t follow up on multiple reported instances of sexual harassment, saying “misogyny is rampant” at the company.
In court documents and interviews many of the women in the Tesla cases drew a direct line between the abuse they experienced and the behavior of CEO Elon Musk, who also leads SpaceX. Musk, who was named Time magazine’s person of the year Monday, is known for his outrageous, and often lewd, tweets: He frequently references the number 69, jokingly named a fictional university with the acronym T.I.T.S. and dubbed his line of cars “S3XY,” after the Models S, 3, X and Y.
“When they were rumoring that the Model Y was coming out and it was sexy … around that time everything got worse,” said Eden Mederos, 31, in an interview with The Washington Post. “It was like, ‘Oh this door panel’s sexy, this pencil’s sexy.’” Mederos, who lives in Clark County, Wash., and worked in Tesla service centers before filing her complaint, said Musk’s comments seemed to directly influence the behavior of her co-workers. “He would make 69 or 420 jokes … which caused the technicians to be even worse.”
The lawsuits were filed in California Superior Court in Alameda County.
The lawsuits are part of a spate of high-profile legal activity involving the factory and its workers, including $137 million awarded to former employee Owen Diaz in October after a jury found in favor of the elevator operator’s allegations of racist abuse, discrimination and harassment. Tesla has also been disciplined for unfair labor practices at the plant — interrogating employees over suspected unionization plans and threatening workers with the loss of stock options, among other labor law breaches, the National Labor Relations Board has said.
“What we’re addressing for each of the lawsuits is just a shocking pattern of rampant harassment that exists at Tesla,” said attorney David A. Lowe, a partner at Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe LLP, which is representing the women. “It is pervasive throughout the workplace and now we know it’s not just the factory floor in Fremont but other locations, including the sales centers.”
Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company has said it takes allegations of sexual harassment seriously in response to worker complaints and does not tolerate retaliation in such instances. In cases of high-profile litigation drawing attention to worker concerns, Tesla seeks to reassure employees of its principles while also fighting back against the complaints themselves.
When a 2017 suit alleged Tesla was a “hotbed for racist behavior,” the company published a blog post calling it a “Hotbed of Misinformation.” Following the October jury verdict in the Diaz trial, which alleged racist abuse, Tesla took exception to the verdict and said it was working to improve the employee experience.
“While we strongly believe that these facts don’t justify the verdict reached by the jury in San Francisco, we do recognize that in 2015 and 2016 we were not perfect,” said Valerie Capers Workman, Tesla’s Vice President of People “We’re still not perfect. But we have come a long way from five years ago.”
For years, Silicon Valley has faced criticism of the exclusivity of its “tech bro” culture, fueled in part by a low proportion of women in the workforce and leadership. Tesla said in its 2020 diversity report that women make up just 21 percent of its U.S. workforce and 17 percent of leadership.
“While women are historically underrepresented in the tech and automotive industries, we recognize we have work to do in this area,” the company said in its diversity report. “We are taking active steps to increase our outreach to women and build an inclusive culture that supports their development and retention. Increasing women’s representation at all levels, especially in leadership, is a top priority in 2021.”
Tesla requires many of its workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements, court filings say, meaning workplace disputes must be settled outside of court. Attorneys in some of the sexual harassment cases are challenging those agreements as “unenforceable” as they seek to have their cases weighed in open court.
Several of the allegations mirrored the type of harassment Barraza alleged in her suit last month. They focused on the Fremont factory, where Tesla assembles vehicles and employs about 10,000 workers. Several of the workers said they were beginning their careers when they arrived at Tesla and emerged horrified by the environment there and the expectations it set for future workplaces.
Michala Curran started working at Tesla when she was 18 years old, she said. “Within her first weeks at work, her own Supervisor told her that with her 'big butt’ she should … be an exotic dancer, and tried to slap her on the backside as she changed out of the bodysuit she had to wear when painting Tesla’s cars,” according to the lawsuit.
Curran, now 20, quit after about two months.
“I just felt scared not knowing who to run to,” Curran, who was hired through a staffing agency, told The Post. “Knowing there’s nothing but males around me — not knowing if they might have the same mind-set of the supervisor.”
Alisa Blickman, 33, told The Post her supervisor saw her stretching one morning and said “I hear you don’t like to scream loud enough.” The same supervisor would touch and rub her lower back, she added. That experience was common in the Fremont factory where she worked, she alleges in a suit; Women’s body parts were referred to using the number system and subjected to lewd comments.
“For me personally, because a supervisor was doing it to me, I didn’t feel comfortable going to HR,” she said in an interview. After fending off her supervisor’s advances, she was told she should be transferred to an outdoor work area known as “the tents,” which Blickman called “one of the worst places at Tesla.”
Mederos started working at Tesla service centers in the Los Angeles area in 2016. She said simple acts, such as eating a banana or using a spoon resulted in men making lewd comparisons and comments, allegations reiterated in her lawsuit. Men would whistle at her, remark “damn” or encourage her to show skin, she alleged. Her suit alleges that Musk’s actions, such as his joking tweets, only egged on the behavior.
“When Mr. Musk did this, everyone at the service center would read the tweets,” reads her complaint. “The managers and technicians would bring up the tweets, laugh about them, and make their own jokes, riffing on the sexual themes.”
When Mederos complained about one manager flirting and trying to put an arm around her while they drove a Tesla, she said in a legal complaint she faced retaliation and was unable to advance within the company, ultimately leading to her leaving her job.
“When I started at Tesla, Tesla was going to be my career,” she told The Post. “I wanted to move up in the company — I was proud to work there when I got the job. When I left, I was just devastated.”
Samira Sheppard, who was employed at the Fremont plant from late 2020 through early 2021, said she was left with shame, anxiety and emotional distress from the job she began when she was 19. The comments male co-workers directed at her included: “Damn, you look good,” “Nice body,” “You look good for being so short,” “I know you look good under there,” and “I know you’d look good outside of work,” according to the complaint.
When a supervisor told male co-workers Sheppard’s nipples were visible through her shirt, her complaint alleges, “Ms. Sheppard was not sure who to complain to, given that the Supervisors or Leads were often the harassers.”
Alize Brown called her experience at the Fremont plant a “living nightmare,” in an interview. In her lawsuit, she says she began there at 21 shortly after giving birth, and a co-worker would comment on her breastmilk-stained shirts, calling her a “cow” or saying “oh, I see you’re milking today.” He also commented on her body, she said, calling her backside a “wagon.” She told a supervisor, she said, who treated her complaint as a joke. And Brown purchased a baggy jumpsuit to try to avoid the male comments on her body.
Later on, she said, the same supervisor told her that her contract would not be renewed. She said she often ended up in different parts of the factory to avoid contact with her harasser.
“It was horrible,” said Brown, now 22, who lives in the Bay Area. “I would actually come home and cry because, first of all I just had a baby, then I have to be tortured for 12 hours. … It was really hard for me. It’s still kind of hard for me even after being let go from Tesla.”