Tesla Downplays Workplace Racism After Jury Orders $137M Be Paid to Black Former Worker

Tesla has downplayed allegations of racism after the company was ordered to pay almost $137 million to a Black former worker who said he suffered racial abuse at the electric carmaker's factory.

Owen Diaz alleged in a lawsuit that he faced "daily racist epithets," including the "n-word," while working as a contracted elevator operator at Tesla's Fremont plant in 2015 and 2016 before quitting. Diaz also alleged that employees drew swastikas and left racist drawings around the factory, and that supervisors failed to stop the abuse despite repeated complaints.

A jury in San Francisco agreed that Diaz was subjected to racial harassment and a hostile work environment. They awarded $130 million in punitive damages and $6.9 for emotional distress, his attorney Lawrence Organ, of the California Civil Rights Law Group, told The Washington Post. Organ has been contacted for additional comment.

After the verdict, Tesla published a blog post by Valerie Capers Workman, the company's vice president of people, which it said had earlier been sent to employees.

In the post, Workman pointed to witness testimony to characterize the use of racial slurs. "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 wrote.

"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."

Workman also said Tesla had responded to Diaz's complaints of harassment by firing two contractors and suspending a third.

"Mr. Diaz himself testified that he was 'very satisfied' with the results of one of the investigations, and he agreed that there was follow-up on each of his complaints," she wrote.

However, Workman conceded that Tesla "was not perfect" when Diaz worked there. She said Tesla had made changes in the years since, adding an employee relations team dedicated to investigating employee complaints and a diversity, equity and inclusion team.

"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 wrote.

"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."

Diaz said the jury's decision had brought him relief. "It's like a big weight has been pulled off my shoulders," he told The New York Times.

Tesla is likely to appeal the ruling, according to the Post. The company has been contacted for comment.

Tesla factory in Fremont
A motorcyclist rides by the Tesla Fremont Factory on May 12, 2020 in Fremont, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images