A California jury has ordered Tesla to pay $ 137 million in compensation for a former elevator in black after experiencing a hostile work environment, including racial harassment and discrimination, at the company’s Fremont plant.
Owen Diaz worked at the factory between June 2015 and May 2016 as a contractor, reports CNBC and Washington Post. Diaz told the court that “daily racist epithet” was used in the facility, including the n-word; that racist graffiti and cartoons appeared in his work area and toilets; and that he was told to “go back to Africa” by colleagues. Supervisors consistently failed to intervene in these issues, Diaz said, and the stress of the situation made him suffer from weight loss and “sleepless nights.” As reported by Bloomberg News, he said to the jury: “Some days I just sat on my stairs and cried.”
The verdict is unusual for several reasons. First, because of the amount of damages awarded by the judge ($ 130 million in punitive damages and $ 6.9 million for emotional distress). “I think it’s the biggest verdict in individual racial discrimination in employment cases,” said David Oppenheimer, clinical professor of law at Berkeley Law, Bloomberg. And secondly, because the case took place in an open court at all. Like many Silicon Valley companies, Tesla often forces workers to agree to mandatory arbitration to resolve workplace disputes, which means they can not directly sue the company.
Activist Tesla shareholders have been complaining about the company’s use of arbitration for years, saying it is stifling cases like these. “The application of mandatory arbitration provisions limits employees’ remedies for misconduct, prevents employees from suing in cases of discrimination and harassment, and can keep secret facts, offenses or case results secret, thereby preventing employees from learning about and acting on because of common concerns, ”said one group, Nia Impact Capital, in a recent shareholder proposal.
Despite this, Tesla has faced many allegations of racial discrimination and harassment at its Fremont facility. Tesla reportedly paid $ 1 million to another former employee, Melvin Berry, who said he was called the n-word by a supervisor and the company is currently facing a class action lawsuit alleging racism at the same facility.
In response to the verdict in Diaz’s case this week, Tesla’s Vice President for Human Rights, Valerie Capers Workman, sent an email to employees, which was later published as a blog post. In it, Workman says that when Diaz complained about the harassment “Tesla stepped in and made sure that responsive and timely actions were taken”, but acknowledges that a number of incidents took place, and notes that “[t]Tesla from 2015 and 2016 (when Mr. Diaz worked at the Fremont factory) is not the same as today Tesla. “Workman did not say whether Tesla plans to appeal the verdict.