FREMONT, Calif. — Owen Diaz has filed a lawsuit claiming he noticed swastikas in the bathrooms at Tesla’s electric-car plant, and ignoring racist taunts around the factory. “You hear, ‘Hey, boy, come here,’ ‘N-i-g-g-e-r,’ you know, all this,” said Mr. Diaz. Then, a few hours into his shift running the elevators, he noticed a drawing on a bale of cardboard. It had an oversize mouth, big eyes and a bone stuck in the patch of hair scribbled over a long face, with “Booo” written underneath.
Interviews, internal communications and sworn legal statements filed by more than two dozen current or former Tesla employees and contractors describe a wide range of concerns among workers at the factory in Fremont, including threats by co-workers, demeaning assignments and barriers to advancement. Three lawsuits by former workers accusing Tesla of failing to curb racial discrimination and harassment have been filed since early last year, including one by Mr. Diaz awaiting trial.
Tesla rejects the workplace portrait painted in the complaints as inaccurate, saying there is no evidence to support “a pattern of discrimination and harassment.” It is not the only automaker to face allegations of racism in recent years, and it acknowledges that “in a company the size of a small city, there will at times be claims of bad behavior,” real or false. But it said there was no indication that the factory had an unusual rate of complaints.
“When you really just look at it, you ask yourself at some point, ‘Where is my line?’” said Mr. Diaz, 50, who worked at the factory as a contractor for 11 months before he quit in May 2016.
Crystal Spates, a production manager overseeing 500 people building the Model 3, said racial slurs were not tolerated at the factory. “I have never heard, myself, anyone use that terminology,” said Ms. Spates, 30, who joined Tesla two years ago.
Mr. Diaz, like Tesla itself, likened the plant to a small city — one in which experiences can vary, he said. “You know, you can have something that happens in one part of the city that doesn’t happen in another part,” he said. But when his son encountered racial slurs and caricatures in a different part of the factory, Mr. Diaz concluded that the issue was not an isolated one.
One suit accusing Tesla of racial discrimination and harassment, filed last November in California Superior Court, seeks class-action status. The lawyers involved — Lawrence A. Organ and Bryan Schwartz, whose practices focus on workplace rights — say they have identified dozens of potential plaintiffs. Each lawyer has won multimillion-dollar judgments in other harassment or discrimination cases against major employers. Tesla is seeking to move the case into arbitration, which would require workers to bring individual lawsuits rather than a joint claim.
The state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing says it has issued 10 “right to sue” letters — a precondition for a discrimination lawsuit — to employees complaining of racial bias at the Fremont plant. Dozens of other complaints against Tesla are pending, but the agency would not say how many involved race.