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Tesla Sued by Black Worker Claiming ‘Unchecked’ Racism

By Malathi Nayak

A Black gay woman who worked at a Tesla Inc. factory accused the electric-vehicle maker in a lawsuit of “festering” racism by ignoring the racial and homophobic slurs and physical harm she endured.

A worker enters a Tesla factory in Lathrop, California, U.S., on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. Lathrop Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal said Tesla Inc. broke ground in his city on what it calls a new “Megafactory,” praising the planned facility in a Facebook post that was deleted and is now visible again. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Kaylen Barker, a former contract worker who inspected brake parts, is the latest to complain that Tesla ignores discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and gender at its plants. According to her complaint, her abuse occurred even as Tesla defended another contract worker’s discrimination case in court — which the company lost and was ordered to pay $137 million in damages.

A White coworker struck Barker with a hot grinding tool while calling her the n-word, “stupid, dumb” and a “b—-,” according to her complaint, filed Tuesday in state court in Alameda County, California. The co-worker was fired after Barker complained to Tesla’s human resources department but was “shockingly rehired” about two weeks later “without any forewarning or explanation,” she said in her complaint.

“I feel like I have been tortured and sent back in time before African Americans had civil rights,” she said in a statement. Barker, 25, said she was “violated physically, mentally, and emotionally” because she’s “an African American lesbian.”

Barker was hired to work at Tesla’s Lathrop, California, sub-assembly plant by a staffing agency in February 2021. She was fired Oct. 29 after lodging complaints to supervisors, according to the complaint — a move she calls retaliatory. She refused to sign a “document falsely confessing to being insubordinate” even though human resources pushed her to do so daily for almost a month before her termination, she said in her lawsuit.

Tesla, which doesn’t have a public relations department, didn’t respond to a request to an emailed request for comment.

Almost three weeks before Barker was fired, Tesla’s former head of human resources said a jury was wrong in awarding $137 million to Owen Diaz over racial abuse at its Fremont, California, factory. Valerie Workman, who left Tesla earlier this year, said the company had “come a long way” in addressing workplace harassment since 2015 and 2016.

“Tesla claims that it’s changed but it’s not a different company,” Barker’s attorney Bernard Alexander, who also represented Diaz, said in an interview. “Now we have an employee,” who faced discrimination at the time of and after the Diaz trial and “Tesla basically did nothing to protect her,” he said.

Tesla’s Fremont factory has long been the subject of complaints about racial and sexual harassment. Many complaints never make it to court because Tesla’s full-time employees sign agreements requiring workplace disputes to be handled in closed-door arbitration, which itself has drawn fire from Tesla investors.

In May, a Black former employee won a rare $1 million discrimination award in arbitration over the company’s failure to stop his supervisors from calling him the “N-word.” The award won by Diaz is believed to be one of the largest verdicts in a racial discrimination case by a single plaintiff. 

Tesla has challenged the Diaz verdict as “without precedent” and said in a court filing it “bears no relationship to the actual evidence at trial.” A California federal judge signaled he’ll probably cut the jury’s award but is yet to make a final ruling on Tesla’s request for a new trial and a reduction in the damages award.

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