FREMONT, CALIFORNIA — Terrill Johnson was installing car trunks at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, when he heard the sound that would define his next few years, if not the rest of his life. “It was a big, loud pop,” he said. In one movement, Johnson had blown out his elbow and his shoulder. “Once the pop came, the pain came.”
That was September 2015. Johnson went on leave for his injury, but on workers’ compensation he earned considerably less than the roughly $1,700 he had earned every two weeks while on the job. Now, two surgeries and more than two years later, he’s still waiting for his workers’ compensation case to be resolved, and trying to make ends meet in one of the country’s most expensive metropolitan areas with just the earnings from his workers’ comp check plus Social Security disability payments from the state. He can’t work out or play sports, and when he walks around, he keeps his injured hand in his pocket because otherwise it swings around and causes him pain.
“I can’t even lift no more than 10 pounds with my left arm, and I’m left-handed,” he told BuzzFeed News. “It took a lot from me. The arm is not going to ever get back to where it was, never.” He said he doesn’t know how he’ll make a living in the five years before Social Security kicks in.
Tesla is the largest and highest-profile electric car company in the world. It’s a $57 billion business built on a message of innovation, ambition, and social good. Its cars, the Model 3, Model S, and Model X, retail for between $35,000 and $79,500, and confer on their buyers not just financial status, but also a certain eco-futurist sheen. Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, is as famous for wanting to colonize Mars as he is for his ambitious production schedule and boundless idealism. Stenciled over the entrance to the company’s Fremont factory are these words: “Our mission: to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
But while Tesla may eventually reinvent the automobile, it hasn’t yet reinvented automobile manufacturing. Here in Fremont, at the only nonunion US-owned automotive plant in the country, the people who labored to build the future of transportation have done so by working long hours with lower-than-industry-average pay, according to workers, and higher-than-industry average risk of injury according to a prolabor nonprofit.
In the last year, amid a union drive and a string of negative allegations about its working conditions, Tesla has raised starting hourly rates by $2; today, it says, its production line workers are paid better than any other US autoworkers, and its injury rate is roughly equal to the national average.
“Car companies have historically built cars by relying heavily on physical activity that inevitably results in some amount of injuries. We strongly believe that this does not need to be the case.”
But 15 people who worked in Tesla’s factory within the last five years describe it as a backbreaking job that placed workers under tremendous pressure to produce — a result of the company’s ambitious production targets — that they say led, in some cases, to lifelong injuries. Between 2012 and early 2017, 180 Tesla employees applied for compensation for partially or permanently disabling injuries, according to a database obtained via a public records request by BuzzFeed News from the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR). In interviews, several of these injured employees described doing repetitive tasks with little opportunity to rotate positions — in violation of Tesla’s own stated policy, as well as industry norms. Most of these workers were making around $17 an hour before they were injured; several said they ended up losing their homes afterward, unable to pay their rent.
“You expect Tesla to be the company that’s futuristic,” said Angelo Aroche, who worked at Tesla from October 2016 to October 2017. “They’re talking about, they want to save the world. But they’re not even worried about their employees’ health.” When Aroche started at Tesla, coworkers told him there wouldn’t be the same rules, training, and safety expectations as at other workplaces: “I brushed it off. I thought, It can’t be that bad — this is Tesla. Come to find out, everything they warned me about was true.”
In a statement, a Tesla spokesperson said its employees go through a state-of-the-art, multiday training program. The spokesperson also told BuzzFeed News, “Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our employees. Car companies have historically built cars by relying heavily on physical activity that inevitably results in some amount of injuries. We strongly believe that this does not need to be the case, and we are trying to create a new way of manufacturing that will have as close to zero injuries as humanly possible. … Our employees work very hard to help achieve a mission that all of us feel so deeply about, and they absolutely must be kept safe.”
A worker assembles a Tesla Model S at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, on June 22, 2012. The worker is not a source in this story.
Paul Sakuma / AP
Tesla emphasized that it has policies in place aimed at keeping production workers safe. But several former employees say the company didn’t always follow them.
In the year he worked there, Johnson said, Tesla consistently failed to follow its own environmental health and safety guidelines, which state that workers should rotate tasks several times a day — a manufacturing industry standard practice because it can help prevent ergonomic injuries.
“Understand this: I would never have gotten hurt if they would have rotated me like they said, every two hours in an 8- or 10-hour day,” he told BuzzFeed News in June 2017. “That was their rule, every two hours, and I was never rotated.”
“Understand this: I would never have gotten hurt if they would have rotated me like they said, every two hours in an 8- or 10-hour day.”
According to the DIR’s publicly searchable database of California workers’ compensation court cases, Johnson filed an application for workers’ compensation adjudication in April 2016. He told BuzzFeed News he’s still waiting on the outcome of his case. (In a statement, Tesla said its “goal is the same as Mr. Johnson’s — and the same as all employees who file workers’ compensation claims. We want them to heal and be able to go back to work and earn a living.”)
Four other people who worked at Tesla from 2012 to 2015 said their job positions on the assembly line weren’t rotated. One of them, Rita Leija, told BuzzFeed News she “begged” her manager to rotate her after she started feeling shocks of pain in her right elbow. Previous employers had been happy to rotate her, she said, but her supervisor at Tesla refused to.
Johnson said Tesla even had a meeting about rotating workers more frequently when he worked there. “Elon, he was there,” he said. “He made the speech. So I don’t understand why I’m forgotten. I guess he don’t too much care. The only thing I think he care about is getting them cars out.”
In a January interview with BuzzFeed News, Tesla’s vice president of environmental health and safety, Laurie Shelby — whose role was created in October 2017 — said company policy is to rotate workers every 150 minutes. The company is currently developing an automated system for rotating workers, set to roll out mid-2018, and members of its safety committee currently started auditing rotation schedules twice a week in mid-2017.
But, Shelby admitted, “we’re not perfect. We’re definitely working to improve in that area.”
After Leija hurt her elbow, she said, she was advised to ice it by the medical professionals Tesla sent her to; when that didn’t work, they suggested a warm compress, and when that didn’t work, they suggested an MRI. She kept working on light duty while the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with her, but her assignment — spot wiping cars with alcohol pads — caused her pain. “I complained to HR and other supervisors,” she said. “It was like talking to a wall.” She would eventually undergo four surgeries, for tendonitis in both elbows and rotator cuff tears in her shoulders.
Shelby said the company is currently hiring a medical director, and looking to increase on-site staffing of a medical doctor from three days a week to seven. The in-house clinic is currently open 24/7, staffed by a nurse practitioner or registered nurse, she said.
As is required by law, Tesla covers the medical cost of injuries incurred at work, and in some cases, its workers’ compensation insurer pays a settlement to injured workers who apply for adjudication in workers’ compensation court. This is a no-fault settlement, meaning the award of a settlement does not constitute wrongdoing on the part of the employer or the employee. But for many workers, the damage — physical and financial — is lifelong.
Alvin Mckinstry said that he was making $17 an hour before he left Tesla with tendonitis and a ganglion cyst. “That’s peanuts considering the type of work you’re doing. And then you get hurt and… Psh, you know, it’s not worth it.”
Tesla’s factory is located in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, where a family of four making less than $80,400 a year is considered low-income by the federal government, and where the living wage for a single adult is $16.48, per the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator.
Tesla told BuzzFeed News it raised its starting wage by a dollar, to $19 an hour, in January. It had previously raised its starting wage, from $17 to $18, in March 2017, a month after a former employee published a blog post highlighting Tesla’s pay, which he called “near the lowest in the automotive industry.” Tesla said it evaluates whether its wages are fair and competitive every six months, and that it had “provided across-the-board raises for production associates twice in the past year alone (and three times over the past two years).”
Four workers who told BuzzFeed News they started at $17 per hour said they received no raises during their time at Tesla. Union workers at GM, Fiat Chrysler, and Ford start at $17 an hour, but their contracts include language promising raises every year.
Because Tesla also gives all workers equity in the company, the company says “production employees at Tesla earn more in compensation than anywhere else in the automotive industry.” Tesla’s hiring package for all employees includes an equity grant, which vests over a four-year period, with the first portion of the grant becoming available after one year. Employees don’t have to buy these shares, though they do have to pay taxes on them; they also have the option to buy additional stock at a discount.
“Forget the stock. Give me an hourly rate.”
“Unlike any other automotive company, every single Tesla employee is an owner of the company, receiving equity that has increased in value more than 10 times since 2012 and almost 20 times since our IPO in 2010,” the company wrote in a statement. “Where else could a production employee in the automotive industry receive company stock on top of their hourly pay and other benefits, and where else could that stock multiply in value like it has at Tesla? Nowhere.”
But for employees working overtime to support their families, the long-term value of Tesla stock, which doesn’t pay for food or clothes or rent, doesn’t seem immediately relevant.
Ruben, a worker who asked to be identified by his first name, said when he was hired, he was granted 250 shares of Tesla stock, portions of which he sold when he could.
“It’s money, but it’s not like you can reach in your pocket and use this shit when you need it. If you want to buy a soda, you can’t reach in your stock and buy it with that,” he said. “Let’s say you wanted to wait to get the whole lump sum, that’s four years. I don’t think the average worker lasts four years at Tesla.”
“Forget the stock,” said Johnson. “Give me an hourly rate.”
The Tesla Motors auto plant in Fremont, California, on Oct. 27, 2010.
Bloomberg / Getty Images
Tesla is the only car manufacturer in California, and comparable workers’ compensation data from auto manufacturing states isn’t available, which means it’s not possible to compare the number of compensation claims at Tesla to those at other auto factories. But using occupational safety data, a prolabor organization called Worksafe published a report last May that found that in 2015, the rate of serious injury — meaning those that “result in days away from work, restricted duty, or job transfer” — at Tesla was more than double the national industry average, while the overall injury rate at Tesla was 31% higher.
Today, Tesla says it expects its injury rate for 2017 to be equal to the national average, and says its serious injury rate is below the national average. It also notes that as injuries have decreased, production has increased.
“These people are like human forklifts.”
Hiring Shelby was part of a factory-wide effort to improve ergonomics, which also included modifications to the general assembly line and the implementation of robots. For example, Tesla installed a pit next to the assembly line that workers can stand in, allowing them to install parts on the lower regions of a car without bending over.
“We’ve been the first to acknowledge that when we first launched Model S and Model X years ago, our cars were not easy to build,” Tesla said in a statement. “While we are not perfect, our goal is to be the safest factory in the world and the implication that we don’t care about our people is not right and clearly contradicted by the facts.”
But a current employee of the Fremont factory, who requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his job, said swaths of the factory still aren’t ergonomically refitted, and that he regularly sees fellow employees nursing injuries.
“These people,” he said, “are like human forklifts.”
A Tesla Model S automobile stands on the driving unit assembly line. The worker photographed is not a source in this story.
Bloomberg / Getty Images
Ergonomic injuries aren’t the only risk workers face. In May, the Guardian reported that “ambulances have been called more than 100 times since 2014 for workers experiencing fainting spells, dizziness, seizures, abnormal breathing and chest pains.” In August, workers alleged that improper chemical training had led to “rashes, dizziness, nosebleeds and, in one case, eye damage.”
Since opening in Fremont in 2010, Tesla’s factory has been inspected by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) 17 times; the most recent publicly available report came after an April 2017 incident in which an employee’s leg was caught between a vehicle and a dolly. Cal/OSHA found three health and safety violations, for which Tesla was fined $2,250. The company was cited for one accident in 2016, and four in 2015, including one $5,000 fine for failing to report that a worker was hospitalized after a wooden pallet fell on her, trapping her against her workstation.
Tesla said it has learned from past incidents and changed its processes, and continues to work with OSHA on outstanding complaints.
“His eyes were closed. He had bleeding from the mouth and his nose. His arms were burned. His vest was melted. There was a puddle of blood under his head.”