Tesla factory workers who stayed home due to COVID fears face termination

Tesla's main American factory in Fremont, California.
Enlarge / / Tesla’s main American factory in Fremont, California.

Andrei Stanescu / Getty

Two workers, Carlos Gabriel and Jessica Naro, say they received Tesla’s layoff notices last week after taking unpaid time off in an effort to avoid the coronavirus. San Jose Mercury News first reported Gabriel’s termination notice last week.

Both workers say they were contacted this week by Tesla’s human resources department. Naro was given the opportunity to return to work if he promised to return. She refused because her 6-year-old son has a health condition that puts him at greater risk.

Gabriel ended his call after Tesla’s representative refused to allow him to record it. She has had no news since then and believes she is no longer on Tesla’s payroll.

Last month Tesla opened its Fremont flagship factory in defiance of public health officials in Alameda County, where the factory is located. To help address security concerns, Tesla executives emphasized that no one would be forced to return to work if they felt insecure about doing so.

“If you feel uncomfortable going back to work right now, don’t feel compelled to do so,” Musk told employees in a May email before Tesla reopened his factory.

Tesla HR chief Valerie Workman explained Tesla’s policy in more detail. “If you are sick or have concerns about going to work safely, stay home,” she wrote. “You can use your available PTO or, if you don’t have one, you can take your time without paying without penalty. We respect your decision.”

But Gabriel and Naro did not feel their decision was respected when they received official notices from Tesla informing them that they were being fired for “not returning to work.”

Security concerns

Both workers have stayed home because they do not believe the company has done enough to protect workers from contracting the deadly virus. The Washington Post reports that the two sacked workers are not alone in their concerns:

A half-dozen workers who spoke to The Post shared their safety concerns, some on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs. They said that Tesla does not follow the guidelines of social distancing, with a lax application of the rules regarding the masks and the sanitation of the machinery. They also complain of little transparency from the company about new cases of infection, as well as their response.

The day before the termination notices were sent, Gabriel spoke at a rally outside the Fremont plant in Tesla, where he criticized the company’s security protocols as inadequate. He was carrying a sign saying “Tesla doesn’t care about human life.” Gabriel believes that his dismissal was in retaliation for his activism.

But that was not how Tesla explained the move. In his completion email, which Gabriel shared with Mercury News, Tesla cited the fact that Gabriel did not respond to emails and voicemails asking when Gabriel would return to work. Gabriel said he did not feel the need to respond because he had been told that he could stay home if he felt insecure. Gabriel and Naro told The Washington Post that they had both been in regular contact with their managers prior to the termination notices.

Tesla did not respond to an email Thursday seeking comment for this story.