Tesla to compensate ex-employee $137 million over racism

A California court verdict has ordered Tesla to compensate a Black former employee $137 million in damages for ignoring racism the man experienced at the firm’s Silicon Valley auto plant.

“They awarded an amount that could be a wake-up call for American corporations,” civil rights attorney Larry Organ told AFP on Tuesday.

“Don’t engage in racist conduct and don’t allow racist conduct to continue.” he added.

According to the court filing, Owen Diaz was employed through a staffing agency as an elevator operator at the electric vehicle-maker’s Fremont factory between June 2015 and July 2016, where he was subjected to racist abuse and a hostile work environment.

In his lawsuit filed in 2017, Diaz said African-American employees at the factory, where his son also worked, were frequently exposed to racist epithets and derogatory imagery.

The plaintiffs, instead of a modern workplace, “encountered a scene straight from the Jim Crow era,” said the suit, originally filed by Diaz, his son Demetric and a third former employee.

“Tesla’s progressive image was a facade papering over its regressive, demeaning treatment of African-American employees,” the court filing said.

Diaz claimed that, despite complaints to supervisors, Tesla took no action over the regular racist abuse.

On Monday, the jury at the federal court in San Francisco awarded Diaz $130 million in punitive damages and $6.9 million for emotional distress, Organ corroborated.

“I knew all along Owen was telling the truth, I just had to prove it to eight strangers,” he said, referring to the panel of jurors.

“Normal, everyday folks see through the BS that corporate America spins.”

The lengthy legal battle pitted Organ’s small civil rights law firm of six attorneys against a well-resourced adversary.

Tesla, a global executive in electric cars, owns a market capitalization of roughly $780 billion.

According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, its chief executive, is the world’s richest person, presently worth $211 billion.

Sequel to the verdict, Tesla disclosed a blog post by human resources vice president Valerie Capers Workman, which it said had been disseminated to employees.

According to the post, Workman played down the allegations of racist abuse in the lawsuit but admitted that at the time Diaz worked there, Tesla “was not perfect.”

“In addition to Mr. Diaz, three other witnesses (all non-Tesla contract employees) testified at trial that they regularly heard racial slurs (including the n-word) on the Fremont factory floor,” she said.

“While they all agreed that the use of the n-word was not appropriate in the workplace, they also agreed that most of the time they thought the language was used in a ‘friendly’ manner and usually by African-American colleagues.”

According to Workman, Tesla had reacted to Diaz’s complaints, firing two contractors and suspending a third.

“Our whole theme was that Tesla was taking
zero responsibility,” Organ said.

“I think they are doing the same thing now: making excuses.”

Workman emphasized that Tesla had made modifications since Diaz worked at the company, reinforcing a diversity team and an employee relations team dedicated to investigating employee complaints.

“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,” Workman said.

“We’re still not perfect. But we have come a long way from 5 years ago. We continue to grow and improve in how we address employee concerns. Occasionally, we’ll get it wrong, and when that happens we should be held accountable.”

 

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