Female Victims of Sexual Harassment at Tesla's Fremont Factory
Tesla is once again facing arbitration over reports of "near-daily" sexual harassment. This behavior has contributed to a toxic work culture in the Fremont factory, declining mental health amongst employees, and a lawsuit filed against the electric vehicle company for fostering a climate of sexual harassment. Want to learn more about these allegations and the legal consequences of the reported misconduct? Read on for an overview of the allegations, as well as what's to come for the company.
According to the Washington Post, night shift production associate Jessica Barraza seeks compensatory and punitive damages in a recent lawsuit against Tesla. Ms. Barraza, 38, is currently on medical leave with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Prior to her medical leave, Barraza reported experiencing the following behaviors over the course of three years at work in the Tesla Fremont factory:
- Male workers routinely propositioned Ms. Barraza and other female workers
- Male workers routinely stared at Ms. Barraza's breasts and commented on her physical appearance, referring to her body as an "onion booty" or "Coke bottle" shaped
- On more than one occasion, male workers brushed up against Ms. Barraza's body while pretending it was accidental
- A male worker lifted Ms. Barraza and placed his hands around her torso.
- A male worker placed his leg between Ms. Barraza's thighs (corroborated by another employee)
- A male worker flirted with Ms. Barraza and told her he "controlled her career prospects"
This harassment began just months into Barraza's employment with Tesla. According to Ms. Barraza, the final incident prompted her decision to pursue legal action against Tesla and those involved. As her formal complaints to the Tesla Human Resources department in September and October of 2021 were never addressed, Ms. Barraza alleges that Tesla is fostering a climate of sexual harassment.
33-year-old Alisa Blickman reports similar behavior at the Fremont seat factory. Blickman recently filed an HR complaint that detailed behaviors such as:
- Male workers ranking the attractiveness of female employees
- Retaliation against female workers
Blickman is currently on COVID-related leave, but waits for additional action.
Former production associate Nallely Gamboa alerted her senior managers to the sexual harassment she experienced while onsite. In her case, some of the behaviors occurred from other women. These behaviors include:
- Inappropriate touching with broomsticks - Gamboa reported touching in between the thighs by a female colleague as a joke
As a solution, Gamboa was moved to a different part of the factory. Unfortunately, the behavior did not stop even she filed reports of harassment. Gamboa eventually resigned due to the work conditions.
James Ramirez, an employee and coworker of Jessica Barraza until 2020, confirms the behaviors she outlines in her report. Ramirez reportedly witnessed behaviors such as:
- Physical harassment
- Management inaction
Ramirez states that it is "disturbing" to see such inappropriate behavior on the factory floor. He is "distraught" by what "such a dedicated employee has experienced."
The harassment and workplace misconduct is not limited to sexual harassment. Owen Diaz, an African-American employee at the Fremont plant, was recently awarded $137 million on behalf of Tesla. According to the San Francisco court ruling, Tesla failed to improve a racially hostile work environment. Diaz's experience as a lift operator from 2015-2016 included incessant racial name-calling and discovering racist graffiti in the workplace bathrooms. In response to the ruling and settlement, Tesla created an employee relations team dedicated to investigating complaints of sexual harassment and racism. An active lawsuit from 2017 refers to the company as a "hotbed for racist behavior."
Lawsuits against Tesla are uncommon, as Tesla requires most workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements. This means that the employee agrees to settle in mandatory arbitration rather than taking issues to court. However, Ms. Barraza's attorney claims this mandatory arbitration agreement is "illegal and unenforceable" because of the "unconscionable" terms outlined in the document. The details of this arbitration agreement will be litigated. In the meantime, a lawsuit has now been filed in California state court. This lawsuit is filed as Barraza v. Tesla, 21-cv-2714, Superior Court of California, Alameda County. According to the Washington Post, the pending lawsuit details "rampant sexual harassment at Tesla," claiming "nightmarish conditions" and a factory floor that "more resembles a crude, archaic construction site or frat house than a cutting-edge company in the heart of the progressive San Francisco Bay area." As of 2020, 31 complaints sit with California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing. According to public records, these complaints allege discrimination at Tesla on the basis of race, age, gender expression, disability, and pregnancy. The state agency issued right-to-sue letters in most of these cases, though some closed due to insufficient evidence.
Effects of Sexual Harassment at Work
The impact of sexual harassment on victims cannot be minimized. As a result of the sexual harassment in the Tesla Fremont factory, some women have been forced to take extended leaves of absence. Others have resigned. The effects of sexual harassment in a hostile work environment are serious. The trauma of sexual harassment has long-lasting effects on the health of employees-- especially female employees. Stress reactions may include:
- Development of depressive symptoms
- Sleep disorders
- High blood pressure
- Lowered self-esteem
In addition, toxic work environments lead to lower rates of productivity. As illustrated in the Tesla case, sexual harassment negatively impacts employee retention and hiring. Additionally, the negative effects of sexual harassment and associated lawsuits have a lasting effect on a company's brand and its relationship with its customers.
Rights of Sexual Harassment Victims
Ms. Barazza alleges that supervisors ignored her complaints. According to the Washington Post, a supervisor responded to her concerns of inappropriate touching and comments with a pointed suggestion to change her shirt. Tesla's Vice President of People, Valerie Capers Workman, responded to a recent lawsuit. "We continue to grow and improve in how we address employee concerns," Workman acknowledged in response to the Owen Diaz verdict. "Occasionally, we'll get it wrong, and when that happens we should be held accountable." Attorneys for Barraza are seeking compensation and a court injunction to eliminate sexual harassment at the Tesla factory. Additionally, the legal team plans to file a California Private Attorneys General Act claim. This would allow Barraza and the aforementioned victims to receive financial payments as a remedy for traumatic damages. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it is against the law to harass an applicant or employee because of that person's sex. This includes:
- Unwelcome sexual advances
- Requests for sexual favors
- Offensive remarks about a person's sex or appearance
- Verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature
Harassment is illegal when it causes an offensive work environment. As in the case of Barraza v. Tesla, the workplace will be investigated if sexual harassment complaints are filed but never effectively dealt with.
Steps to Improve the Workplace
Prevention is the key to eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace. In an attempt to improve the workplace for all employees, organizations must take steps to maintain a safe and controlled environment. This includes:
- Developing a firm policy against all types of harassment
- Providing safe avenues to file complaints
- Providing a Human Resources department or other management so the victim does not need to report to their offender
- Providing stringent sexual harassment training to all employees
- Training managers, so they are able to handle all complaints professionally and confidentially
- Investigating all complaints
Company leaders have a responsibility to take the necessary steps to stop all harassment. According to Bloomberg News, a juror in the Tesla case hopes that the lawsuit and corresponding movement will prompt Tesla leadership to "take the most basic preventative measures and precautions they neglected to take as a large corporation to protect any employee within their factory."
What's Next for Victims of Sexual Harassment
Tesla has yet to file a legal response to the claims. The company will likely dispute the complaint. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is a potential witness for an upcoming trial examining the Tesla Autopilot feature and its involvement in a recent crash fatality. At this time, Musk is not confirmed to testify at the sexual harassment trial. As Tesla has not had an active public relations department since 2020, the company has not responded to multiple requests for comment. If you are a victim of sexual harassment, professionals are available to help. Call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673Â to connect with a counselor and receive the help you need today.