Before one of the 15,000 workers employed at Tesla Motors’s main factory in Fremont, California can enter the sprawling building complex and start their shift, they must stand in front of a heat-detecting screen. The screen displays a heat map of the worker—”It’s supposed to take our temperature,” said one current factory employee—but whether it’s ever led to any further tests or triggered any dismissals, workers aren’t sure.
The heat-scanning screen is one of several interventions instituted at the factory since work at the factory resumed on May 18. The coronavirus pandemic shuttered the factory on March 23, but after Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk first sued and later defied county health officials by reopening early—after downplaying the severity of the coronavirus—production has resumed around the clock.
Tesla reopened only after submitting a “site-specific reopening plan” to county health officials. Details of that plan are secret; county officials declined to release any details, claiming they contain Tesla “trade secrets.” But according to multiple current and former workers, several of whom spoke to Observer on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, neither masking nor social distancing are universally observed or enforced inside the factory.
The lax screening, combined with erratic mask use, mean Tesla’s factory is primed to become a coronavirus super-spreader event, the workers worry.
Workers routinely break mask protocol, pulling their masks down to talk with another worker, face-to-face, while on shift or while on break outside, according to the employee. Supervisors don’t correct mask infractions, they added.
“It defeats the whole purpose” of masking, the worker told Observer. “Your pod,” or group with whom people have contact, meant to be as limited as possible during the pandemic to reduce or eliminate the risk of community transmission, “just became the whole factory.”
With such a large workforce coming from all over the state, mask use may be crucial to reducing or eliminating the chance of community spread inside the factory. Unlike many businesses, including grocery stores, enforcement of masking at Tesla is frighteningly lax, workers told Observer.
As for how many Tesla workers have come down with the virus, or whether the virus has been brought into the factory, nobody will say. Tesla does not share that information with its Fremont workforce, estimated at 15,000 people, with “constant, significant turnover,” a current worker said.
Meanwhile, at least ten workers are known to have taken time off from the factory after testing positive for the coronavirus or coming in contact with a friend or family member who has—including at least one who worked a shift at the Tesla factory after the potential exposure, according to the current worker.
Tesla’s press team did not return an email seeking comment for this article. Laurie Shelby, the company’s vice president of health and environmental safety, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Many of Tesla’s workers commute, via car or company shuttle bus, from far-flung corners of California—which, in the six weeks since the Tesla factory reopened, is seeing coronavirus cases and hospitalizations increase at a rate that’s led Gov. Gavin Newsom to pause or reverse reopening.
“Transmission is increasing in the state,” Newsom said at a press conference on Monday. Counties with increasing cases will be asked to “toggle back” reopenings, Newsom said.
After a slow start, the coronavirus is threatening to engulf California, one of several states currently pausing or rolling back reopening plans.
Cases in Alameda County, where the factory is located, have doubled since Tesla reopened on May 18, according to official county figures.
Very soon after the factory reopened, several workers at the factory tested positive, the Washington Post first reported.
Statewide, the number of daily new confirmed positive cases has similarly increased more than 100 percent, from 2,262 cases to 6,367 on Monday. San Joaquin and Fresno counties, from where Telsa factory employees commute, according to current and former workers, were ordered to close recently reopened bars on Sunday.
Yet so far, no such reversals or even a reconsideration of practices are afoot at Musk’s factory.
Exactly what the factory is doing to combat the coronavirus, beyond what the worker described, is not public information. A public records request seeking that information returned a heavily redacted document, with all details blacked out because they contain “trade secrets,” according to the Alameda County Public Health Department, which would (theoretically) be responsible for penalizing or shutting down the Tesla factory for coronavirus-related health problems.
Instead, workers are forced to be satisfied with “security theater,” said Carlos Gabriel, a former Tesla worker recently terminated for refusing to return to the factory, citing conditions he feels are unsafe for workers and workers’ families.
Other workers still at the factory confirmed the anonymous worker’s account, Gabriel said.
“That’s why I’m not going back,” he said. “They’re not offering real significant testing of any sort.”
Tesla could easily test its entire workforce, for both key data and as a modest safety precaution. Yet the company is not, current and former workers say.
“If Tesla and Elon Musk were smart, they would have started testing a long time ago,” Gabriel added. “I’m not saying it’s cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than shutting down.”
Shutting down the factory, however, would require challenging Elon Musk—and that’s not something county or state officials appear willing to do.
County officials stopped engaging with the company as soon as Musk, who called the state’s coronavirus closures “fascist,” filed a lawsuit on May 9, staff for a local elected official told Observer. (That could also be why the county is keeping private information Tesla submitted to a public agency, including the company’s reopening plan, outside observers said.) Musk dropped the suit on May 20.
Whether Newsom will have the appetite to challenge the mercurial billionaire industrialist is unclear. Newsom’s press office did not respond to inquiries this week. Erika L. Monterroza, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Industrial Relations, directed Observer to previously published accounts that Cal/OSHA opened an investigation of conditions at Tesla on June 11. Monterroza did not say what the status of the investigation might be, and what action the state might take, or when.
In the meantime, Gabriel says he’s “refusing to risk my life” in a factory where too many workers and management officials “just don’t give a crap.”
“If Tesla truly was making ventilators,” as Musk promised it would early in the pandemic, “I would go back in a second,” he added. “But to make electric cars, that’s only making Elon Musk rich? I don’t think that’s a priority right now.”