The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Tesla Inc. for “widespread and ongoing” racial harassment of its Black employees and for retaliating against workers who spoke out about the problem, the federal agency announced Thursday.
Since at least 2015, “Black employees at Tesla’s Fremont, California, manufacturing facilities have routinely endured racial abuse, pervasive stereotyping, and hostility as well as epithets,” the commission said in a statement.
The EEOC added: “Black employees regularly encountered graffiti, including variations of the N-word, swastikas, threats, and nooses, on desks and other equipment, in bathroom stalls, within elevators, and even on new vehicles rolling off the production line.”
The lawsuit was brought by the EEOC’s San Francisco District Office, which has jurisdiction over Northern California, northern Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Montana.
EEOC officials said the lawsuit is seeking compensatory and punitive damages “and back pay for the affected workers, as well as injunctive relief designed to reform Tesla’s employment practices to prevent such discrimination in the future.”
EEOC Chairperson Charlotte A. Burrows said the lawsuit “makes clear that no company is above the law.”
“The EEOC will vigorously enforce federal civil rights protections to help ensure American workplaces are free from unlawful harassment and retaliation,” she said.
Attempts to reach officials at Tesla for comment were unsuccessful.
Tesla, the world’s most valuable car company, faces similar action on several other fronts.
In February, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit on behalf of more than 4,000 current and former Black Tesla workers — the largest racial discrimination suit ever brought by the state based on number of workers affected.
In that suit, three former employees alleged that racist slurs in English and Spanish were often aimed at Black employees by co-workers and supervisors. They said Tesla segregated Black workers into separate areas, gave them the hardest tasks and routinely denied them promotions. And they alleged that when they informed the company about racist treatment, their complaints went ignored or they were fired.
Tesla disputed the former employees’ accounts, stating that the three workers did not complain to the company about racism and that any discipline they received was the result of their own workplace behavior.
“Race plays no role in any of Tesla’s work assignments, promotions, pay or discipline,” attorneys for the company said in a statement at the time. “Tesla prohibits discrimination, in any form.”
Thursday’s lawsuit puts a different kind of pressure on Tesla, said attorney Clifton W. Albright, founding partner and president of Albright, Yee & Schmit, a labor and employment law firm in downtown Los Angeles.
“The EEOC’s preference is to resolve issues quietly…. They don’t have a dog in this fight,” he said, unlike lawsuits filed by private firms or civil rights organizations.
“For the EEOC to come out so strongly, they must think there is significant evidence that the employer refuses or fails to recognize or address.”
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