Last year when a bombshell story set of investigations into alarmingly high injury rates at Tesla’s electric car factory, the CEO Elon Musk emailed the entire company to express his concern and sympathy: “No words can express how much I care about your safety and wellbeing,” he 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.”
At the time, many employees were touched, but they later discovered that Musk had simply turned the life-changing injuries of his employees into a golden opportunity for good press on his leadership skills. If only his claims had been 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,” another current worker told investigators, noting that after developing three pinched nerves in his arm, Musk had never met with him.
A third worker who was injured last fall had the same experience: “He didn’t meet with me, and my incident was filed. If he was truly going to meet with all the employees who got injured, he would be here for half the year.”
In fact, in conversations with more than 10 current and former Tesla employees over the past month, workers described the what happens when your boss habitually makes outrageous promises – to shareholders, to customers and to his workers – and then leaves them unfulfilled. Over the years, the billionaire’s overly optimistic pronouncements have excited his legions of fans, but left the factory workers feeling like collateral damage.
Ortiz, a Tesla employee who’s been an outspoken supporter of a unionization drive at the factory, pointed out that even if Musk really had performed every injured worker’s job, it’s doubtful that the experience would have helped the CEO really understand the difficulties and risks 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.”
While workers at the Tesla factory may have learned to take Musk’s words with a grain of salt, the billionaire’s promises – whether he makes them by company email, in investor earnings call, or through the press or Twitter – still loom large over the workplace.
In May 2017, Musk emailed all employees a message about “doing the right thing” – that is, being considerate of minorities and “not being a huge jerk”.
The email re-emerged later in the year when Tesla faced numerous lawsuits from employees alleging sexual harassment, gender discrimination, racism and homophobia in the workplace. 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 would never have my daughter work in there,” one 55-year-old materials handler told reporters. “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.’”
But it’s the workplace injuries that have emerged at the center of most lawsuits against the company.
When an engineer with extensive experience in the military and private sector took a position at Tesla in 2016, he immediately developed concerns about his new position 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.”
That engineer, along with many other rank and file factory workers, feel there is a direct connection between Musk’s aggressive production projections and their tough working conditions. For some employees, the high stress and long hours have made it impossible for any kind of family life. Others have suffered 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 at work. He soon lost his apartment when he was assigned “light duty” work that paid much less, and had to sell many personal belongings just to make ends meet. Today, he continues to suffer from 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 syndrome 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 many 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, stating: “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%.”
Yet a major investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal has cast serious doubt over Tesla’s claims about its injury rates, which companies are legally required to report to workplace safety regulators. Reveal discovered that Tesla had kept injuries off its books to create the illusion of a better safety record. Now the government has opened an investigation.
In recent months, three lawsuits have been brought against Tesla alleging violations of California labor laws. These include allegations of failing to provide workers with legally mandated breaks. Tesla stated that it “goes above and beyond the requirements of California and federal law in providing all workers with meal and rest breaks and appropriate overtime pay.”
But employees tell a different story. “There have been plenty of times that I had to pick between eating or using the bathroom,” said one worker. “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 doubled down on those claims, 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.”