Black employees at Tesla’s Gigafactory in South Buffalo have alleged they’re routinely subjected to racist treatment by managers, problems they say have persisted since the plant opened five years ago.
Seven current and former Tesla employees, all of whom are Black, told Investigative Post the treatment they’ve experienced has ranged from offensive remarks to being repeatedly passed over for promotions.
In one case, five employees recounted instances where groups of Black men were having conversations on the factory floor, only to be told by management they weren’t allowed to do that because “the optics looked bad” and they looked “like a gang.”
Those episodes are the subject of one of two complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging racism at the factory.
“I and several other Black men and women have been discriminated [against] and harassed,” the complaint reads.
In another case, an employee said, a manager — on multiple occasions — allowed a group of mostly white employees to go home early while requiring a group of mostly Black employees to stay to clean up a production line.
According to text messages reviewed by Investigative Post, one manager acknowledged to an employee that they had been subjected to “racism” and “sexism.” The treatment persisted nonetheless.
A senior Tesla official who left the Buffalo plant last year confirmed the veracity of the allegations.
The current and former employees all spoke to Investigative Post anonymously because they fear retaliation from Tesla.
Tesla did not respond to an interview request for this story. The EEOC and New York Division of Human Rights declined to comment.
Allegations of racism at the plant aren’t new.
In 2019, WIVB reported that six former employees had filed complaints against the company with the EEOC, alleging a “hostile workplace.” The outcome of those complaints is not reported on the public record, as the EEOC only acknowledges complaints if they result in an investigation or lawsuit.
Similar treatment has also been reported at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, according to a 2022 lawsuit. That suit was the result of “hundreds” of complaints to California’s version of the EEOC, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The EEOC opened its own investigation into the claims last year. Both the lawsuit and investigation are ongoing.
Passed over for promotions
Four of the employees interviewed said they were passed over at least 20 times when they applied for promotions, despite their belief they were qualified.
As production associates — an entry-level position — the employees said they worked on multiple manufacturing lines, sometimes supervising the work. But when some applied for a promotion to be placed formally in charge of the lines, they weren’t even granted interviews.
One employee, who has worked at the factory for five years, said he applied for nine different positions he felt he was qualified for, and didn’t receive a single one.
“For anything that I’ve applied for, I’ve only had two phone interviews,” the person said. “For anything else I’ve ever applied for, I haven’t heard any correspondence.”
Another employee said he’s applied for seven different positions over his four years at Tesla, and didn’t get an interview until his most recent application.
“I’m not mad about anyone else getting the job. Don’t take it like that,” the employee said. “I’m mad because I was never given the opportunity to even interview for the job.”
Several employees said that white workers who are friendly with managers regularly receive promotions.
“Nine times out of ten, as a Black person, you’re not going to get that job,” one employee said. “I don’t care if you have more experience than that person, you’re not going to get it. We have seen that happen.”
One case in particular was cited by several employees as an example of unfair promotional practices.
In that case, two Black employees said they were assigned to work on a new manufacturing line involving batteries. The employees learned how to run the line, they said, and even wrote an instruction manual on how the line should operate — work that is typically done by higher-paid engineers.
The two men approached Human Resources and management to see if their hard work was worth rewarding.
“‘Can we get a title? More pay?’” one of the men asked. “‘Can we get more days?’”
Both men were denied.
“When we raised the issue, they shut us down completely and just sent us somewhere else in the factory,” one of those employees said. “They didn’t want to pay us any more money.”
One of the men was sent to work on a different production line, packing boxes. He viewed that as “retaliation.”
“I can do all of that, but then you take me from one line and put me on another line to just pack boxes,” he said. “To me, that’s going backwards.”
Eventually, management interviewed for senior positions on the manufacturing line that the two men knew how to run. One had to pass an engineering test and sit through an unusually long interview, only to be denied the position. The other never got an interview.
It was only later, after the line was shut down and restarted, did one of the men get a more senior position.
“I don’t think there’s a clear structure,” one of the men said of the experience. “Did they even get my application? Did they look at it? Are they not hiring anymore? They don’t tell you anything.”
The former senior employee told Investigative Post that they believe Tesla holds back Black employees. That person said they’ve been in meetings with others in leadership where managers described certain Black employees as “rock stars,” but wouldn’t grant them promotions.
“So if he’s rocking that hard, why isn’t he being moved up?” the person questioned. “Somebody help me with that.”
“Looks like a gang”
In other instances, five employees said, managers told groups of Black men they weren’t allowed to speak in groups. Other groups of employees speaking together weren’t subjected to the same treatment, several said.
“People will, two or three people, gather and have a conversation. The minute the Black men gather, [management says] ‘Oh, you guys can’t group up like that. You know, it looks like a gang,’” one employee said.
One employee described the treatment as “harassment specifically targeted against Black workers” and noted that other workers of color, including some who are Bangladeshi, weren’t subjected to the same treatment.
The former senior employee explained that managers not allowing Black employees to speak to each other in groups was tied to the Tops shooting on May 14 and union-busting efforts.
After the mass shooting, the former senior employee said, some Tesla workers wanted to attend a vigil to honor the 10 victims during working hours. Management waffled, but decided to allow workers to attend, without pay.
Upon their return, the former senior employee said, some officials in management assumed Black employees speaking in groups were discussing their handling of the vigil request, and talking about forming a labor union.
That prompted Tesla to bring in an official from its Washington, D.C., office to talk to leadership about avoiding a union.
And, the person said, several employees who attended the Tops vigil came back to work with “a target on their backs.” Hence, the edict for Black employees not to speak in groups.
“It was absolutely disgusting,” the person said.
In another instance, a manager sent workers in the solar division home early. One group of employees, who were mostly white, were sent home. Another group, who were mostly Black, had to stay behind.
“[The manager] let all the Caucasian people leave and made all the Black people stay and clean up,” an employee said. “He would just tell the back end to leave, and the rest of you to clean up. This [has] happened a couple of times.”
The employee reported the mistreatment to a manager and human resources. But the complaint went nowhere, even though a manager agreed the treatment was inappropriate.
“Favoritism…Racism. Sexism. It’s a lot,” the manager texted the employee. “Just tell [HR] how you feel and what you’ve experienced. If we are honest the whole truth will come out eventually.”
A spokesperson for Empire State Development, the New York agency responsible for funding the $1 billion Tesla factory, said the state has “zero tolerance for racism and discrimination in any form.”
“We strongly encourage anyone who has been harassed or victimized by such abhorrent activity to seek support and assistance from the state’s significant resources that are dedicated to combating this behavior and protecting individuals who have been impacted,” said spokesperson Pamm Lent.
Some employees said Tesla’s new production manager in Buffalo — Adetope Ogunniyi, who was transferred to Buffalo from Tesla’s factory in Nevada — has made some positive changes, including making sure qualified Black employees get interviews for promotions, though issues still persist.
“She’s trying to make changes,” one person said. “But, you know, they’re slow in coming.”