When Jessica Naro was told she would need to report back to work Wednesday at Tesla’s automobile assembly plant in Fremont, California, her first thought was that it wasn’t safe to do so.
She was worried about her health as the sole provider for her family, but even more worried she’d be exposed to the virus and pass it on to her 6-year-old son. In March, he spent two weeks in a hospital for a condition that she was told makes him more vulnerable to serious complications if he contracts the coronavirus.
“It was really hard,” she said. “I’m not ever trying to deal with that again.”
Naro is one of five workers who spoke with NBC News about their concerns over Tesla’s efforts to reopen its plant despite an ongoing, countywide health order put in place in mid-March to limit the spread of the coronavirus. It’s unclear how many workers have returned to work but based on conversations with these five workers, many Tesla employees seem to have returned to the factory. But concern remains that public guarantees that they would be able to return to work at their discretion are contradicted by internal pressure to help the company resume producing cars.
Naro, 25, works the night shift at the plant. She’s been furloughed since late March when the countywide order forced the factory to shut down most operations. The order from the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency limits nonessential businesses like Tesla to “minimum basic operations” until further notice.At first Tesla fought the order, arguing it was an essential business, but law enforcement got involved and it eventually complied. Yet Monday, it acted to again defy the order.
The county said in a statement Tuesday night that it had received Tesla’s site-specific plan on Monday “as anticipated.” Per Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order, a site-specific plan is needed to reopen a manufacturing plant.
The county said it had reviewed the plan and made some additional safety recommendations. If those are added to its plan and “public health indicators remain stable or improve,” Tesla could “begin to augment their Minimum Business Operations this week in preparation for possible reopening as soon as next week,” the statement said.
In recent weeks, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has become the most visible executive to challenge limits on which businesses are allowed to operate during lockdowns. Musk filed a lawsuit against local officials and threatened to move Tesla’s headquarters and assembly plant out of state. He has also routinely tweeted his skepticism about the need for and legality of lockdowns, and railed against the closing of the economy, tweeting “FREE AMERICA NOW.” His efforts have received support from President Donald Trump.
On Monday, Musk tweeted he would reopen the Fremont plant in violation of the county orders, and he did resume operations that day.
Naro said she believed she was well within her rights to determine when she was comfortable enough to return. After all, Musk had written in an email to workers about the reopening that if they “feel uncomfortable coming back to work at this time, please do not feel obligated to do so.”
But Naro said she had reason to think that was not the case. Naro said her supervisor told her over the phone that if she had chosen not to come back as directed, she could be terminated. However, she said she received a different message over email, which didn’t include any mention of termination. It said she would no longer be eligible for unemployment insurance but could use unpaid leave without being penalized if she did not return to work.
Emails sent to employees and reviewed by NBC News confirm Naro’s account about the inability to get unemployment insurance and need to take unpaid leave. California’s Employment Development Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about whether workers’ benefits would be affected.
Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.
Carlos Gabriel, 36, a production associate at the Fremont plant, said he was assured by the human resources department that he wouldn’t lose his job or face a penalty for not returning. But he said being taken off furlough status if he chooses not to return and not being paid “is a penalty.”
Gabriel said it’s not worth the risk to his health.
“I don’t think that’s a choice for me. I find my life to be a little more valuable,” Gabriel said. “You’re asking me to liberate myself from my home to go and risk my life? You call that freedom?”
A worker on Tesla’s Model 3, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, said he was called last week and told he’d be taken off furlough status immediately if he didn’t agree to return to work on Monday.
He chose not to anyway.
“I’m going to believe medical professionals before I believe Elon,” the worker said.
Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said California law does protect employees from retaliation, including firing, for engaging in a wide variety of protected activities such as refusing to perform an unlawful act. If Alameda County prohibits resuming operations, employees can lawfully refuse to work.
“The problem for the workers is that it’s one thing to have a viable claim for an unlawful firing, and it’s another thing to have a job,” Fisk said. “Having a possible lawsuit does not pay the rent or put food on the table. And Tesla knows that. So the threat is very likely to intimidate some workers to force them to work.”
Tesla has maintained that the company is taking the necessary precautions to make sure its employees are not at risk of contracting the coronavirus while at work.
On Saturday, Tesla published a memo with its 38-page plan to ensure worker safety as it resumes production. Steps include requiring additional personal protective equipment, rigorous cleaning and disinfecting protocols, temperature screening and limited break room capacities.
But the county said it’s still in violation of the order and must cease operations until the county’s health officer “approves Tesla’s site-specific plan … and issues an order permitting manufacturing generally.”
A production associate at the factory, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said it was initially unclear what to do because the order was still in place. But the associate ultimately returned on Tuesday.
“Some people have no choice,” the associate said. “It’s just like we’re being forced to come in.”
The employee said Tesla required returning workers to watch a short video with basic steps like washing their hands, staying 6 feet from people and covering their mouths when they sneeze.
Employees’ temperatures were taken before entering the facility and masks were worn. But other measures were harder to enforce in the facility, which measures 5.3 million square feet and houses more than 10,000 workers.
“It’s hard to stay 6 feet from people,” the employee said. “It’s a production line. There’s a lot of people.”
Musk tweeted and emailed employees saying that he’d be on the production line “with everyone else” and would be “personally helping wherever I can.” According to a source, he did show up on Monday briefly and worked on the Model 3 line.
Musk, who tweeted that he was “restarting production against Alameda County rules,” also sent employees an email that some viewed as rubbing the defiance in their faces.
“Just wanted to send you a note of appreciation for working hard to make Tesla successful. It is so cool seeing the factory come back to life and you are making it happen!!” Musk said in the email, which was reviewed by NBC News. “An honest day’s work spent building products or providing services of use to others is extremely honorable. I have vastly more respect for someone who takes pride in doing a good job, whatever the profession, than some rich or famous person who does nothing useful.”
But not everyone was mollified.
Branton Phillips, 56, a material handler at the Fremont plant, said he wouldn’t be returning to work until the order was lifted. His wife is at risk and he’s concerned about her safety.
“I’m not trying to shirk work. I need to work and want to work, but the stress is already high on a production line without having to worry about this,” Phillips said. “This is people’s lives, this isn’t some rinky-dink thing or Elon’s union busting. This is people’s lives.”