By business reporter Nassim KhademPosted Wed 15 Dec 2021 at 12:24pmWednesday 15 Dec 2021
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WARNING: This story contains language that readers may find offensive.
The lawyer for the six women suing Tesla for alleged sexual harassment says more women are coming forward with allegations of harassment suffered while employed at the electric car company.
- Six women currently or formerly working at Tesla’s San Francisco electric auto factory and Southern California service centres filed suits against the company
- The women allege they were subjected to requests for sexual favours, inappropriate touching and threats at the hands of their colleagues and that the company failed to take action
- In October, in a separate case, a jury ordered Tesla to pay almost $192 million to an elevator operator who accused the car maker of ignoring racial abuse he faced
On Tuesday, six women — Michaela Curran, Alize Brown, Jessica Brooks, Alisa Blickman, Samira Sheppard and Eden Mederos — currently or formerly working at Tesla’s San Francisco Bay Area electric auto factory and Southern California service centres filed suits against the company led by Elon Musk.
The lawsuits were filed in the Alameda County Superior Court on the same day Mr Musk was named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year. However, there is no suggestion Mr Musk was involved in the allegations of harassment.
The six women allege they were subjected to constant and severe sexual harassment — including requests for sexual favours, inappropriate touching, and threats — at the hands of their colleagues and that the company failed to take action.
The documents filed with the court state, “although Tesla publicly claims that it fosters a safe and respectful environment for its workers, the truth is that for years Tesla has subjected women working in its Fremont plant to nightmarish conditions of rampant sexual harassment”.
“Tesla’s factory floor more resembles a crude, archaic construction site or frat house than a cutting-edge company in the heart of the progressive San Francisco Bay Area,” the documents state.
“The pervasive culture of sexual harassment, which includes a daily barrage of sexist language and behaviour, including frequent groping on the factory floor, is known to supervisors and managers and often perpetrated by them.”
The six women described having to take actions to try to protect themselves from constant harassment, including wearing baggy clothes, starting work early or skipping breaks, and being asked to be moved away from harassers.
The lawsuits also alleged that Tesla had sought to shield itself from public accountability by forcing employees, as a condition of employment, to waive their rights to a jury or court trial and instead agree to have their legal claims sent into private, confidential arbitration.
The news came in the wake of a separate lawsuit filed last month by another former employee at Tesla’s Fremont factory, Jessica Barraza, who alleged “rampant sexual harassment at Tesla” including catcalling and inappropriate touching.
Tesla has not yet responded publicly to those allegations or to ABC News’ request for comment about the recent lawsuits filed and are yet to file a defence to the claims.
But the lawyer representing the six women, David A Lowe, a partner at the firm Rudy Exelrod Zieff & Lowe, told ABC News that more women were coming forward following the story being reported across US news media outlets.
“Within hours of the story being published, I have already had another woman who has seen the press reports coming forward to tell her story,” Mr Lowe told ABC News in a phone interview from San Francisco.
“Given how widespread the harassment is, I do think that other women will come forward.”
Separately, after the recent lawsuit against Tesla was announced this week, a former engineer at SpaceX, another company led by Mr Musk, published a blog post detailing her experiences of sexual harassment.
Male co-worker allegedly asked for a hand job
Five of the employees work or used to work at Tesla’s Fremont factory and one was employed at Tesla service centres throughout Southern California.
Here are their stories based on the lawsuit documents filed with the court.
Michaela Curran was just 18 when she started her first job as an adult at Tesla’s Fremont factory. It was her first job out of high school.
Within her first weeks at work, according to court documents, her own supervisor allegedly told her that with her “big butt” she should “shake her ass” and be an exotic dancer, and tried to slap her on the backside as she changed out of the bodysuit she had to wear when painting Tesla’s cars.
To her face, male co-workers would make comments like, “Oh, this white bitch has ass”, “She has hella ass”, “Your tits are small, but you have a big ass”, and “Hey come over here”.
One male co-worker allegedly sexually propositioned Ms Curran and asked her to give him a hand job in the Tesla parking lot, referencing how other employees would often have sex there.
The behaviour that Ms Curran experienced made her feel “depressed, ashamed, angry, anxious, afraid, and uncomfortable, both at work and even outside of work”.
She began wearing baggy clothes to try to avoid drawing attention to herself.
After nearly two months of allegedly being sexualised, she could not take it anymore and decided to quit.
Woman with three-month-old baby called ‘cow’ and ‘wagon’
Alize Brown was 21 years old and had a three-month-old baby when she started working the night shift in Tesla’s Fremont factory.
Court documents claim a man in her area began harassing her every day, calling her a “cow” when her breast milk stained her shirt and saying: “Oh, I see you’re milking today.” He referred to her bottom as her “wagon,” saying: “Oh, I see that wagon back there today.
When she told her supervisor she was being harassed and asked if he would talk to the harasser, she alleged in court documents that he treated it like a joke and told her to go back to work.
She went out and bought a baggy jumpsuit to avoid comments from her alleged harasser and others about her figure.
She requested to be given jobs that would take her away from the area where her harasser worked.
After three months, she claims in court documents that her supervisor to whom she had complained about the harassment told her that she was being let go because her contract was not being renewed.
Woman stacked boxes around her workstation to avoid male colleagues
Jessica Brooks, another factory worker, was allegedly harassed so constantly that she began stacking boxes around her workstation.
Ms Brooks bought flannels to tie around her waist so men would stop commenting on her backside and approaching her to stare at her figure.
She started wearing baggy clothes along with her Tesla uniform, but men continued to shower her with unwanted attention.
When she complained to human resources about a persistent harasser, they moved her to a new workstation where she was forced to learn a new role.
But the harassment continued.
Ms Brooks received comments at work like “Look at all that ass!” and “I like your tattoos – you got ’em all over your body? I think it’s really sexy”.
She was regularly subjected to whistles, sexual noises, sexual hand gestures, and men brushing up against her.
“Tesla’s managers and leads participate in and tolerate the harassment, and the culture is that this kind of behaviour is so normal that nothing will happen to those who engage in it,” the documents stated.
Ms Brooks said she often cried in the morning before work because she dreaded having to deal with the harassment.
‘Felt like a piece of meat’
Alisa Blickman said she “felt like a piece of meat at Tesla’s factory” and the sexual harassment she faced left her feeling “embarrassed, demeaned and unsafe”.
She alleged in court documents that her supervisor would rub his hand on her lower back and whisper sexual comments to her like, “hear you don’t like to scream loud enough”.
Ms Blickman said she jumped back, looked appalled, and said “What?” He tried to cover his tracks by saying: “‘I heard you don’t like to scream ‘teamwork’ loud enough.”
According to her claim, she was allegedly told he had a history of sexually harassing women and that such women often ended up being transferred if they were not receptive to his attempts.
Her male colleagues would talk openly about which female colleagues they wanted to have sex with, would rate them on a scale of attractiveness from one to 10, and would make comments as women walked by such as “Oh, I’d do her”, “I’d f*** her”, “Her ass is a 10”, “You’re cute”, “You’re pretty”, and the like.
When another female colleague “outed” Ms Blickman as a lesbian, men began routinely asking her questions about the mechanics of how she has sex, and whether she thought certain other women in the factory were attractive.
“The culture at the factory was that men brazenly commented on the bodies of women in voices loud enough for the women to hear,” the court documents stated.
Ms Blickman requested stress leave from HR, citing her unsafe working conditions. In response, she allegedly received a letter that appeared to terminate her.
Woman allegedly stalked through factory
Samira Sheppard was 19 years old when she started her first job at Tesla’s Fremont factory as a production associate.
On a daily basis, she had to hear comments sexualising her and other female employees, such as “Oh my god, you have such big tits”, “I’d f*** the s*** out of her”, and “You’re gonna be my baby mama”
At least several times a week, male co-workers would ask Ms Sheppard out on dates and would flirt with her daily, despite her making it clear that she was not interested.
During her first week at work, another male co-worker allegedly began to stalk her, following her throughout the factory.
A supervisor allegedly made comments to her male co-workers about being able to see her nipples through her shirt, according to court documents.
After about two months of being allegedly sexualised at work, Ms Sheppard went out sick.
“Ms Sheppard refrained from returning to work because of these working conditions, which resulted in her termination,” the documents state.
‘If you showed a bit of skin, the customers would be nicer’
At male-dominated Tesla service centres in Los Angeles, Eden Mederos alleged that she faced constant harassment from other technicians who made comments like, “a pretty girl shouldn’t be working in a service centre”.
She was told she should flirt with customers, with the male staff telling her, “If you just turned around and showed your ass, you would have a rich husband” and, “If you showed a bit of skin, the customers would be nicer”.
“After three years of harassment, she experienced high anxiety, sadness, and panic attacks, and had to leave her job to protect herself,” the documents read.
The shirts Tesla issued to female employees were low cut and technicians would try to throw coins down the women’s tops. Ms Mederos began wearing sweaters to avoid it.
The men would mostly comment on her bottom, using offensive words, like “ass,” “cake,” or “dump truck”. They would make jokes, such as asking her if she could hold a cup up with just her “ass”.
Ms Mederos stopped eating at work to avoid lewd comments. She found she could not even eat with a spoon without someone saying, “How much can you fit in your mouth?” “I know that you can take a bigger bite than that”, or saying “Ouch” as if she were biting them.
According to the court document, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk would regularly tweet jokes about 420 (used to refer to cannabis or to the act of smoking cannabis) and make jokes about “69s”.
“When Mr Musk did this, everyone at the service centre would read the tweets,” the documents stated.
“The managers and technicians would bring up the tweets, laugh about them, and make their own jokes, riffing on the sexual themes.”
On a couple of occasions, Ms Mederos asked her managers for HR’s number. Sometimes, they said that they did not know it. Other times, they said they would get back to her but did not, she alleged in court documents.
She was also allegedly harassed by her manager, who, she claims in court documents, regularly used his body to block the doorway when she and other women were trying to get by and would touch her shoulder and other times yell at her.
When she reported the conduct to human resources, she was allegedly told she had made “aggressive accusations” and was called a liar.
The documents said no one adequately addressed her complaint and she was denied her leadership opportunities.
“The stress of working in this sexist, hostile environment became overwhelming,” the court documents read.
“Ms Mederos would work 14-to-16-hour days and then come home and cry, knowing the next day would be awful.”
If case goes to trial, massive damages may be awarded by a jury
Mr Lowe — who has previously represented other victims of sexual harassment in high-profile cases against American companies — said it was hard to predict, if the case went to trial before a jury, how high the level of damages awarded could be.
But he pointed to the case of a federal jury in San Francisco in October ordering Tesla to pay almost $US137 million ($192 million) to an elevator operator who accused the carmaker of ignoring racial abuse he faced while working at the automaker’s factory.
The plaintiff, Owen Diaz, who worked at the factory in Fremont, California, for about one year said a supervisor and other colleagues repeatedly referred to him using racial slurs.
He was awarded $US6.9 million for emotional distress and $US130 million in punitive damages, one of the largest sums given to an individual plaintiff in a racial discrimination case in American history.
“Amounts awarded in sexual harassment cases can be high,” Mr Lowe said.
“The conduct recorded by the women in these cases is so rampant and severe across the factory and their [Tesla’s] other facilities that it really calls for a severe response.”
Mr Lowe said Tesla was allowing a workplace that was “archaic” and that it “should know better”.
“They [Tesla] have an obligation to provide a safe workplace,” he said, noting that the company still had not responded to the lawsuits filed.
Mr Lowe said if the case went to trial, it could take up to 16 months as the challenges associated with holding hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic was pushing trials further out.
“We are gathering the evidence so as soon as there’s a date, the women can go before a jury.”
He said the women were struggling mentally and financially.
“Some are doing better than others, but all the women are suffering because of the harassment that they experienced,” he said.
The women held high-paying jobs, were struggling financially and had also suffered from mental health issues as a result of the alleged harassment, he said.
“They’ve gone through this process [of making a complaint internally with Tesla] before and it can be intimidating and scary.”
Mr Lowe has represented previous victims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
This includes a successful lawsuit against Pinterest.
In December 2020, Pinterest settled the gender discrimination suit, brought by its former chief operating officer Françoise Brougher, for $US22.5 million.
Ms Brougher said she was fired after speaking up about mistreatment.
Mr Lowe has also acted for former Tinder vice-president Whitney Wolfe Herd, who alleged two executives at dating app Tinder had made lewd and harassing comments toward her.
In 2014, the company said the lawsuit was settled without any admission of wrongdoing.
Mr Lowe’s firm, Rudy Exelrod Zieff & Lowe, also represented Ellen Pao, who brought a lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for gender discrimination.
The case, mounted in 2012, went to court and in 2015 the jury found in favour of Kleiner Perkins on all counts.
courtesy abc news