Seven women are suing the Elon Musk-led company, alleging sexual harassment
This is not in dispute.
This summer was a busy one for Musk. He decided to buy and then decided not to buy Twitter. He fathered children Number Nine and Number 10 with a female executive at another of his companies. (Simultaneously, Musk’s father, Errol, admitted to having fathered a second child with his stepdaughter.) His third child disowned him. He denied concurrently that he broke up the marriage of the co-founder of Google and that he offered to buy a flight attendant a horse in exchange for an erotic massage.
The flight attendant received a settlement that was billed to SpaceX, Musk’s rocket company. It hasn’t been a great year for women at SpaceX. In December, former SpaceX engineer Ashley Kosak published an essay meticulously detailing alleged sexual harassment at the company. That was followed in June by a group of SpaceX employees releasing a statement saying Musk’s frattish behavior was “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment” and asking Musk to stop being, well, a creep. SpaceX investigated their complaints for 24 hours, and then announced that SpaceX had “terminated a number of employees involved.”
On a not-unrelated note, Musk continued his longstanding love affair with “69” memes, often tweeting them to his 105 million Twitter followers. This is not an accident. Musk has made geek loucheness his personal brand and a component of Tesla’s marketing strategy. It may have even helped to save his company. By 2016, Tesla had released two models, the S and the X; both were critically acclaimed and massive hits for the previously tiny electric-vehicle market, but not enough to keep a giant company afloat. The next car would make or break Tesla. After building a roadster and an SUV, Tesla’s third car was going to be a sensible sedan, but Musk had to make it edgy. His plan was to name the crossover version the Model Y and the sedan the Model E, completing his “S-E-X-Y” line of cars that he had hinted at in tweets and speeches for years.
Alas, Ford, the historical home of the Model T, rumbled about trademark infringement and possible litigation. So Musk changed the car’s name to the Model 3. The company began selling T-shirts and coffee cups with a logo reading S3XY. Get it? (It wasn’t just about the cars’ torque and acceleration.) Wordsmiths groaned but Musk loved it. “We just trademarked ‘sexy,’ ” boasted Musk in an interview.
With increased public demand for EVs and backed by the S3XY campaign, the Model 3 was a megahit. Since the car was released in July 2017, Tesla has sold 3 million 3s, and the company’s stock has risen from $62 at the beginning of 2018 to a high of more than $1,200 a share on Nov. 1, 2021. The 3 is the bestselling electric vehicle in the world and is as omnipresent in America’s affluent neighborhoods as lacrosse sticks.
Musk became the richest man in the world and continued his frat-boy-as-businessman strategy. He announced in July 2020 the sale of a limited number of red satin short-shorts with the word S3XY written across the ass, ostensibly tweaking Tesla short sellers who lost billions as the stock rose. “Only $69.420,” tweeted Musk. (He is also big into weed memes.) They sold out in minutes.
Alisa Blickman didn’t know any of this in 2021 — she just needed work. She had been laid off from her job in Oakland as the pandemic crushed the Bay Area’s economy. What Blickman did know was that she was the sole provider for her child and Tesla was offering $21 an hour, with the promise of overtime.
Blickman applied online last fall and was quickly hired. A few days later, she made the 50-mile drive from her Pittsburg apartment to a Marriott near the Fremont plant for orientation. She alleges that the sketchy vibe began the moment she walked into a conference room. A man in a S3XY T-shirt welcomed her and the other new hires. The man soon began talking about the company, telling the new employees that “Teslas are so sexy” and “These are some sexy cars.”
Blickman wasn’t a Tesla fangirl, so she didn’t understand why there was so much talk of sexy at an onboarding session for a global corporation.
“I just thought it was very weird,” Blickman tells me. We are sitting in the deserted pool area of her apartment complex. It’s June, but she’s in a puffer jacket and occasionally shivers. I wonder whether it was because of the morning chill or talking about her experiences working at Tesla.
A year after being hired, Blickman is one of seven former Tesla workers who have filed sexual-harassment lawsuits against Musk’s car company in the past 10 months. The women, most of whom were let go, allege a level of sexual harassment that paints Tesla as more like one of William Blake’s dark “Satanic Mills” than a high-flying Silicon Valley corporation saving the environment.
The following story is based on court documents, including those filed on behalf of the women, and Tesla’s filings in these cases, as well as interviews with five of the women, their friends, and co-workers. In their lawsuits and their interviews, the women describe a workplace rife with sexual harassment and a culture of indifference or hostility to their concerns and complaints.
Tesla, which has not had an active public-relations department since 2020, does not typically respond to press inquiries, and did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. In its court filings in the women’s cases, Tesla invoked the arbitration clause in its employment agreement and has denied the women’s claims. “Tesla has always and continues to strictly prohibit its employees from engaging in any form of sexual harassment,” Tesla asserts in filings in one of the cases. The company emphasizes that it works to ensure “a safe and respectful work environment,” backing this up with multiple declarations by employees in various roles. And it cites its anti-harassment training and “See Something Say Something” and “Take Charge” programs that “empower employees to report any issues,” and claims it “promptly and thoroughly investigates . . . sexual harassment and, if substantiated . . . takes appropriate disciplinary measures, up to and including termination.” When reached by phone, the company’s lead lawyer, Sara A. Begley of Holland … Knight, acknowledged that she had received Rolling Stone’s inquiries, and then offered a terse “no comment.”
Tesla didn’t answer questions about Musk’s sexually charged public persona and how it might trickle down in potentially damaging and unforeseen ways.
In Blickman’s case, she claims, problems started at her onboarding session. She recalls the man in the S3XY T-shirt starting to read in a monotone about Tesla’s various policies. Eventually, he came to the company’s policy on sexual harassment. According to Blickman, he played an instructional video. Many of the examples in the video were of women harassing men. She couldn’t believe it.
“I thought, ‘If I’m sexually harassed, they’re not going to care,’ ” Blickman says.
On her first day at work, Blickman alleges she watched a male Tesla worker take photos of a woman’s backside as other men watched quietly, as if the man was hunting big game. The photos were soon circulating around the factory. On a break, Blickman says, she went up to the woman and asked if she was OK. The woman just shrugged.
“I’m used to it,” Blickman says the woman told her. “Shit like that happens all the time here.”
At first, Blickman says, she kept her mouth shut. Almost every day, she alleges, she heard the male workers in the factory sizing up women: “Oh, I’d do her.” “I’d fuck her.” “Her ass is a 10.” She had spent many years working in a predominantly male world as a delivery driver, and knew how to maneuver around a bad seed or two. The problem at Tesla, she says, was there were too many bad seeds.
A few weeks into her time at Tesla, she alleges, a male worker inched into her workspace and began intentionally touching her with his arm and then his leg. The man walked up to Blickman on a break and smiled. “You’re a pretty little white girl.”
She also alleges the man lied and told her he was a “lead,” a.k.a. a supervisor, which dissuaded her from complaining about him. On another occasion, she says, she told the man to back off. She claims the man told a couple of co-workers that he wanted to kill her and another employee. Eventually, management moved him to a different part of the factory, but Blickman still had to see him on a regular basis.
Blickman tried to focus on her work, but says that she remained afraid.
“It’s awkward, and I’m not an idiot,” Blickman tells me. “I’ve just started, what’s it going to look like if I say I’m being sexually harassed right away?”
Blickman began commuting with another worker, Jessica Brooks, one of the seven women who have filed suit against Tesla, who claims she eventually began piling boxes around her workstation so Tesla workers couldn’t gawk at her body, and confirms Blickman’s story. Brooks and Blickman talk about how all the catcalls and awful behavior made them want to call in sick. Daily, they both allege, they heard men talk about female employees, debating which ones were fuckable. Blickman claims she heard one male worker shout about another woman employee.
“I’d like to bend her over and spread her cheeks.”
Another man blurted out his sexual preferences: “I like to spit on a girl’s face when I’m fucking her.”
Blickman’s first supervisor wouldn’t help because, she alleges, he was one of the worst offenders. Each day, she claims, he approached Blickman from behind and gave her an unwanted massage on her lower back. Blickman just gritted her teeth under her Covid mask and waited for it to be over. (In another one of the women’s lawsuits, Tesla filed a sworn statement from a female worker who allegedly worked close to Blickman and Brooks, saying she didn’t hear or see any sexual harassment at the factory, and multiple other Tesla employees submitted declarations along the same lines, insisting that if they had, they would have reported it.)
Tesla requires its workers to do a few minutes of stretching every morning before their shift. One day, Blickman alleges, her supervisor came up behind her and whispered in her ear.
“I hear you don’t like to scream loud enough.”
Blickman says she broke for a moment and turned toward her supervisor.
The man backed away and rephrased his statement, she claims.
“Uh, I hear you don’t like to scream ‘teamwork’ loud enough.”
Later, that supervisor was transferred to a different part of the factory. His parting gift? According to Blickman, he told his replacement that she was not “a valuable team member” and suggested she be exiled to a harder job outside in the “tents,” one of the factory’s least desirable areas to work.
Outside of work, Blickman says, she ran into a female Tesla worker. They talked a bit and Blickman confided to her that she was a lesbian. Blickman says the woman then aggressively came on to her, but Blickman told her she wasn’t interested in going on a date. The woman grew angry, and Blickman alleges she outed her to the rest of her Tesla workers.
Blickman says this resulted in a new wave of harassment. The woman who outed her would, Blickman claims, get her attention by making thrusting motions. She says the woman followed her into the bathroom and dropped to the ground and looked under the stalls for her.
Blickman says Tesla’s HR was less than useless. (From a statement issued by Tesla and from its filing in the women’s cases, the company claims it later amped up some of its sexual-harassment training and processes.) Blickman says she did find one male worker who was sympathetic to her. He’d listen as she detailed her complaints. “He was definitely not a pig,” remembers Blickman. “But he was only one in a sea of pigs. There were just too many in there.”
The months passed and Blickman found it increasingly difficult to drag her body out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to make the 90-minute commute to her 12-hour shift. She was drinking and smoking too much. Every break, she had an urge to bolt the factory. Blickman tells me that in the fall of 2021, she asked to be transferred to one of Tesla’s service centers. There was a problem with her paperwork — she doesn’t know if this was done on purpose or was just incompetence.
In October, Blickman took Covid leave. She emailed Tesla HR while away and told them she needed to take stress leave. She detailed some of the harassment she claims that she and others had suffered. HR replied about meeting in person, but then, Blickman says, she didn’t hear anything else, so she didn’t go back to the factory. She was fired when she didn’t return to work after getting a letter from Tesla in November saying that company policy might result in the termination of employees if they didn’t come to work for two days in a row without notification.
After remaining stoic through most of our conversation, Blickman’s eyes fill with tears: “I was just looking for a place where I can work and not be bothered, not be harassed. Is that too much to ask?”
I ask her if she thought Musk’s slavish devotion to frat-boy humor contributed to Tesla workers saying whatever they wanted to women.
“Of course,” she says. “There are people in that factory who see him as a god. If he talks like that, they know they can, too.”
There is no evidence suggesting that Musk knew about the alleged harassment going on at Tesla’s Fremont factory before the women filed their lawsuits. But for a guy who claims to be so hands-on, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have picked up on complaints about the allegedly pervasive culture. And if he didn’t know, why didn’t he know?
THERE IS A COMMUNITY coming to life on the once desolate land adjacent to Tesla’s Fremont factory. For years, the Warm Springs neighborhood was a dreary industrial area that had become a haven for folks dumping trash and junking cars while participating in other unsavory activities. Now, there’s a new elementary school, the first one built in Fremont in 25 years. It’s just a 15-minute walk on freshly paved sidewalks to a recently opened Bay Area Rapid Transit stop connecting the blue-collar town to San Francisco. The boulevards are wide, and the charging stations are plentiful. Townhouses at the corner of Innovation Way and Synergy Street are going for $1.4 million.
Currently, Fremont produces more than half of the Teslas in the world. The factory is on the grounds of a former General Motors plant that was bought by Tesla for $42 million in 2010. Just 12 years later, Fremont has become the most productive auto plant in the country, building almost 8,550 environmentally friendly electric cars a week in 2021. The numbers are trumpeted as further signs of Musk’s genius.
However, Tesla isn’t a stranger to litigation about its work culture. In 2021, a jury held the company liable in a racial-discrimination suit filed by a Black worker who alleged the use of the n-word was common at the factory and that racial slurs were scrawled on the walls. (Tesla disputed the judge’s findings after the verdict and assured its employees that the facts didn’t justify the jury’s verdict.)
This spring, 15 Tesla workers filed a suit against the company alleging that Black workers were often greeted by white bosses with comments of “Welcome to the plantation.” The suit also alleges that Black workers were given the most daunting physical assignments. “Race plays no role in any of Tesla’s work assignments, promotions, pay, or discipline,” lawyers for the company said in a statement. “Tesla prohibits discrimination, in any form.”
This followed a February lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Tesla for racial discrimination and harassment at the Fremont plant. (In a statement, Tesla called the lawsuit “misguided” and denied the allegations, dubbing the proceedings “unfair and counterproductive, especially because the allegations focus on events from years ago.”)
Tesla’s defenders would argue that every large company will at times face lawsuits, HR challenges, and disgruntled employees. However, Tesla seems to be an extreme case both in the quantity of legal actions brought in quick succession and the consistent nature of the allegations. And most companies don’t have a rule-defying leader like Musk, what with his tweets floating the idea for a new school whose acronym just happens to spell out TITS — “Am thinking of starting a new university: Texas Institute of Technology … Science. … It will have epic merch.”
The women’s legal filings detailed alleged incidents ranging from being asked for hand jobs to being stalked by drunk-on-the-job employees in the parking lot. While the cases make their way through the system and Tesla pushes back against the allegations, the fallout has been catastrophic for the women. One couldn’t leave her bedroom for weeks. Some feel ashamed, a common reaction among sexual-harassment victims. And many are having trouble jump-starting their careers after their time at Tesla left a black hole on their résumé. The women tell Rolling Stone they can’t understand why the kind of behavior they claim they experienced was, and possibly still is, being tolerated by Tesla and Musk. They believe Musk should be held accountable.
The never-modest Musk recently proclaimed that he would jack up Fremont’s production by 50 percent in the near future. That means more jobs. Musk is offering something to workers who could never buy a $60,000 entry-level Tesla, much less a million-dollar home: a $21-an-hour wage. This is manna for blue-collar workers in America, where most of the factory jobs that used to support manual labor have been shipped overseas or down to Mexico. Men and women from economically distressed towns like Antioch, Stockton, and Modesto talk excitedly about doubling their take-home pay. Yes, 90-minute commutes each way — exponentially longer if you are relying on public transportation — are a nightmare. And, yes, you are standing on your feet for 12-hour shifts in a nonunion shop where you can be fired without cause. And, yes, there was a killing in the parking lot last December, when one worker allegedly laid in wait for another worker and gunned him down. Still, there is optimism in the air. Even the women bringing the lawsuits tell me they had been excited about working at a place with cool tech that was making our air a little better.
Then, they say, reality settles in.
ALIZE BROWN THOUGHT that if she covered her body head-to-toe in oversize clothing, she would be left alone.
It was November 2020 and most of the Bay Area economy was still on Covid shutdown. She was 21, had a three-month-old son, and her partner was out of work. Brown didn’t hesitate when a recruitment agency offered her a job casting metal parts for Tesla. She tells Rolling Stone she had heard from a female cousin who had worked at Tesla that it was a tough place for a woman to work. Brown says she thought they were being dramatic.
According to Brown, she kissed her baby goodbye a few days later and left for work at 4:30 a.m. At 6 a.m., she clocked in and learned her station wasn’t in the factory but outside in an area commonly known as the “tents,” where she would be dunking metal parts into a hot chemical liquid to prepare them for shaping. She was given work gloves to protect her hands from the toxic liquids, but tells me she soon noticed other workers had burns on their forearms where the gloves ended. She was then required to “grind” the pieces into shape with a tool.
She says she also soon learned that there were other dangers. First there were catcalls from male workers. Her court filing detailed some of them:
“Are you single?”
“No, I have a partner and a baby.”
Brown alleges the men would just laugh.
“Whatever man you’re with doesn’t care about you because you’re working.”
(Tesla filings include a sworn statement from one of Brown’s supervisors claiming that he had not seen or heard any sexual harassment targeting Brown.)
Brown tells me that she informed her Tesla supervisor that she was breastfeeding and would need to pump during her 12-hour shift. She says that information spread throughout the department. This quickly became a subject of sport with her co-workers, particularly one male worker who became obsessed with her. He started making comments about her breastfeeding, often referring to her as a “cow,” or saying that she was “milking.” She says that when her breast milk leaked and stained her shirt, he would say things like, “I see you’re milking today.” According to her complaint, the man would spend most of the workday bothering Brown, following her around. And he was always talking, she claims.
“You’re looking hella thick today.”
Brown decided to do what she could to deter the unwanted attention. That’s when she bought an extra-large mechanic’s jumpsuit to envelop her body, and started wearing a wool hat to cover her hair and a big scarf for making her neck invisible. Other than her face, hardly an inch of her skin was exposed.
“I just wanted to blend in and somehow disappear,” Brown tells me at a Starbucks not far from her apartment. She’s wearing a jaunty straw hat and has an easy smile, but her fists keep clenching in anger. “I just wanted to do my job and go home. They wouldn’t let me.”
After a month or so, she says, she went to her male supervisor and complained about the creepy co-worker. “He is saying very inappropriate comments to me. I’m feeling uncomfortable. Can you say something to him?”
According to Brown’s court filing, her supervisor, who she claims frequently looked her body up and down, brushed it off. (In a filing by the supervisor in another one of the cases, he claims none of the employees he supervised ever complained to him about other employees using harassing language, and that he would have escalated any such complaint to HR.)
Things somehow got worse. The Tesla factory is immense, with 10,000 employees. Besides lunch, workers receive two 15-minute breaks during their 12-hour shifts. Brown would have to walk quickly just to reach a toilet and get back in time. Brown alleges the co-worker followed her to the bathroom. She says she begged him to stop harassing her. He just laughed and went back to his crude talk. Brown alleges she went to her supervisor and asked him to move her to a different part of the factory, but, she claims, the man soon moved there, too, and continued harassing her.
“In my heart, I wanted to strangle him,” she says. “Like with both hands and both feet. But I knew I had a baby and I’d go to jail. So I couldn’t do anything.”
Brown says he wasn’t the only man to bother her, and alleges that she pleaded with her co-workers to knock it off. “We’re not at a party, we’re here to work,” Brown says she told the men. “I’m not here to flirt with you. I need this job. Please leave me alone.”
Brown tells me a story that is also in her court filing. There was another male worker who reeked of booze and began asking her personal questions about her life and what she liked in a man. One night, she finished her shift before dawn (the Tesla factory runs 24/7) and started making her way to her car in the vast parking lot. The lot wasn’t a picnic in the best of times — this is where the worker allegedly shot another employee. That night was worse, Brown says. She heard the drunken man shouting for her to give him a ride home. He staggered after her. Brown started running in a jagged pattern trying to lose him, but the task was made harder because she was wearing so many layers of clothes. She eventually lost the man and slipped into her car. She let out a scream of rage before driving home.
“I grew up in Oakland, and I know how to avoid people on drugs or drinking, but I didn’t think I’d have to do it at work,” Brown tells me. “It was Covid. I needed the money for my baby.”
She brought the workplace home and would yell at her partner to not touch or comfort her. He suggested she quit, and Brown snapped back that they needed the money. So she kept going to Tesla. About two months later, Brown went to work and found out her badge would not let her enter. She called a co-worker, who asked a supervisor about it, and they reported back to Brown that her contract had been terminated. The reason? She says Tesla argued that she had been away from her workstation too much. She was crushed.
“I was just trying to get away from the men who were harassing me,” Brown says. “I begged them to move me or them. They never listened. Instead, they fired me.”
That was 18 months ago. Since then, Brown says, she has battled anxiety and gets nervous about leaving her house to run routine errands. She now has a job in a San Francisco hair salon, but she says she has trouble riding the BART train to work. “I can’t handle anyone sitting behind me or getting on and sitting next to me,” Brown says. “I’m working on it.”
Now, that fear and depression seem to have turned to anger. At the end of our conversation, I ask Brown if people would buy Musk’s car if they knew what she alleges happened in his company’s plants. She lets out a little laugh and considers what she would do if someone gave her a Tesla.
“I’d drive that Tesla down to the factory,” Brown says. “And I’d burn it.”
EDEN MEDEROS DIDN’T LIKE to fight traffic, so she often spent 14 hours a day working at the Centinela Tesla service center in suburban Los Angeles. Arriving around 6:30 a.m., she liked the first hour in the morning twilight. Mederos wasn’t getting paid for that first hour, but she got a lot done, unlocking the place, scheduling appointments, and getting keys ready for customers picking up their cars. The other thing she says she cherished about her morning time was that no one was harassing her.
She claims it started early in her time at Tesla. Mederos’ job title was “concierge,” but her responsibilities ran from organizing maintenance appointments to dealing with Tesla owners grappling with the latest update to their car’s digital dashboard. Mederos doesn’t have kids, so there were no cute snapshots to personalize her desk, but dinosaurs take her to a happy place. “I’m a big Jurassic Park nerd; that’s my guilty pleasure,” Mederos tells me. “I just love them; they make me smile.”
So she brought in some dinosaur figurines to decorate her desk one morning. She placed the dinosaurs and went off to help a customer. A half-hour later she came back, and claims she could hear many of the almost-all-male staff giggling: The dinosaurs had been rearranged in sexual positions. This wasn’t a huge surprise to Mederos, she alleges, since Musk had ground the “69” meme into dust, captioning a screenshot with “Nice” after his twitter followers hit 69 million. Mederos and the other women Rolling Stone spoke with say male Tesla workers found it hilarious, the female workers did not. She restored her dinosaurs to their original positions, but every time she stepped away, she alleges, someone fucked with them, so she took them home at the end of the day.
By that point, Mederos felt that complaining wouldn’t do any good. She says she’d already stopped eating at work because whether it was a banana or yogurt, someone would make sex noises and ask her “How much more can you fit into your mouth?” Mederos claims co-workers passed the time throwing coins and crumpled paper at her and other women, aimed to go down their shirts.
Mederos recently moved from Los Angeles to the Portland, Oregon, area. She likes the laid-back feel and says she had mostly healed from working at Tesla between 2016 and 2019. But after talking to her I’m not so sure. She was stoked when she was hired by Tesla after working for 10 years with special-needs kids. “I thought I was pretty tough,” says Mederos. “I’ve been knocked down a flight of stairs at work.” Mederos says she was psyched to be working for Tesla, a company trying to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. “We are watching our planet dying. It was great wanting to be a part of something doing something about that.”
But there were warning signs. The center had about 30 employees, and only three were women. (The other women Rolling Stone talked to also cite a rough 10-to-one male-female ratio at Tesla.)
Shortly after starting, Mederos says, she told her boss that she had problems hearing certain tones and voices with her right ear. This got around, and apparently many of the men she worked with thought she was deaf. A technician allegedly called out “I’ve never seen a white girl with an ass like her.” The same tech guy eventually learned that Mederos was half-Cuban. One day, she claims, he sidled up to her. “That explains why you have an ass.” This atmosphere encouraged two other workers to ask her if she could hold a cup up with just her butt. The tech guy, per Mederos’ legal filing, also once remarked on the breasts of a girl visiting the center, and was unfazed when he was told the girl was 12. “Those tits are not 12,” he allegedly said.
“The place was toxic before Eden got there,” says a former Tesla employee who worked with Mederos and left company feeling the culture was inappropriate and obnoxious. “A guy would start there and seem like a nice guy, but then he wanted to be part of the group and just started being awful. Other women got harassed — Eden just got it more.”
Mederos says her first supervisor was sympathetic but useless, telling her that’s just how men talked at Tesla. Occasionally, employees would be compelled to watch videos on sexual harassment. That only made things worse, according to Mederos. Men would touch Mederos’ arm and leg, and say in a mocking tone, “Oh, no, I’m sexually harassing you.” After the announcement of the S3XY line, the men at the service center started calling everything “sexy” — “This pen is so sexy, this stapler is so sexy.”
“There were conversations about it,” says Mederos. “They would say, ‘Well, [Musk] says it, so why can’t we say any of this stuff?’”
Her second supervisor, according to her filing, was even more of a nightmare. He would block doorways as she tried to enter offices, she claims. One day, Mederos alleges, she and that supervisor took a Tesla for a test drive. She claims that before they pulled out of the parking lot, her supervisor placed his hand on her shoulder and told her that her strong personality was holding her back at the company.
“You should be calmer; that is what is expected of a woman.”
Mederos says she jumped out of the car at the first red light and walked back to the center. Eventually, Mederos alleges, she reached out to HR to plead her case. The HR rep listened and agreed to meet with her. Mederos says she was somewhat optimistic as she arrived for the meeting in a conference room. That was immediately crushed. She opened the door, and her boss was sitting at a table with the HR rep. Mederos couldn’t believe it. She felt like she was going to throw up.
“You’ve made some aggressive accusations,” she says the HR rep told her.
Mederos tried to explain her side of things. But she says her supervisor shouted her down.
“Everything you say is complete bullshit!”
He kept yelling until he stalked out of the room, she claims.
Mederos couldn’t stop crying. The HR rep told her to take the rest of the day off.
She pauses when she tells me this part of the story. It’s been two years, but she still blames herself.
“First I was shocked,” recalls Mederos. “And then I was just so angry at myself. Everybody had told me that if I go to HR, this sort of thing would happen. I knew from then on, I was gonna be so screwed.”
She tried to transfer to another Tesla service center. Her supervisor slow-walked it for months, she says. Eventually, she moved to a Tesla center in nearby Torrance. Things were better for a while. Then, according to her court filing, her old boss showed up without any reason. He allegedly sat on Mederos’ desk menacingly. She tried to avoid eye contact. He began to speak to her.
“What are you doing?”
“That’s a change.”
He then stalked away, but would occasionally return so she knew he was watching her. She claims she told her new supervisor about the incident, but he took no action. In a separate conversation, she asked him why men doing her same job were making more money than her, and why she had not been promoted despite excellent reviews. He gave her an impassive look and said, “If you are only in it for the money, you should quit now.”
Mederos began dreading going to work. She would leave her house in the morning and get increasingly anxious the closer she got to the service center.
In November 2019, her supervisor allegedly began screaming at her for his own mistake. Mederos ran to her car and never set foot in a Tesla office again.
“I just broke down in tears and told the assistant manager that I was leaving, and I couldn’t come back. I’ve never walked out on a job, ever,” says Mederos, who has been working since she was 14.
Mederos is doing better now that she is in Portland. But sometimes anger creeps in. Recently, Mederos and her boyfriend ordered a car service to take them to the airport. Her boyfriend was excited when the car picking them up was a Tesla. He talked
about how he had always wanted to ride in one. Mederos got angry at her partner. She laughs about the experience for a second. But then she turns grim.
“I loved those cars,” says Mederos in a monotone. “Now, if I see one, it just makes me anxious and sad.”
CHANGE ALWAYS STARTS with one step. One worker not willing to accept things as they are. One worker with the courage to speak up. That woman in this case was Jessica Barraza. One day, San Francisco attorney David Lowe received a voicemail from Barraza. In a shaky but strong voice, the 39-year-old mother of two detailed her three years of hell at Tesla. Lowe set up a meeting with her. After hearing her account, Lowe asked her a difficult question. He was sure that other women had similar experiences. Would Barraza be willing to go public and do some interviews? Barraza said yes.
Within a month, Lowe’s law firm had heard from the other six women it now represents. They have never been in the same room together partly because of the pandemic and partly because many of them now fear social situations. Still, two of them tell me that they would have not come forward if Barraza had not taken that first step.
“It took courage for her to do that,” Lowe tells me. “We might not have heard from the other women. Jessica let them know they were not alone.”
It has not come without a cost to Barazza.
One summer day at Lowe’s office, the quiet of a San Francisco afternoon suddenly ends as a screaming motorcycle rips up the street. Eight floors up, Barraza’s body jerks and recoils in a conference room. Her hands shake. Her arm features tattoos with her parents’ names and cradles a clear plastic bag filled with prescription bottles for depression, anxiety, and insomnia (she is on medical leave from Tesla). Barraza has done nothing wrong, but still she apologizes. “I’m so sorry.” Her lip quivers. “Ever since Tesla, loud noises scare me.” She begins to cry. “I just feel ashamed they made me feel like this.”
Barraza’s father had run a transmission-repair shop in San Jose. As a child, she had heard men talk in macho terms about their rides. Entering the predominantly male world of Tesla didn’t faze her. Besides, in 2018, she and her husband, Perfecto, had two sons who were nearing college age. They needed the money. She was making only $10 an hour at a Modesto boutique. Tesla was offering $19 an hour.
“That’s Bay Area pay compared to Central Valley pay,” says Barraza. “There was no question I’d do it. I’m not a big save-the-Earth person, but I thought this was something that would make my children’s and grandchildren’s world a little better.”
She lets out a bashful smile. “I knew a lot of the work involved robots, and that sounded cool.”
Barraza began work at Tesla installing cooling fans. She’d assemble the fan, and when a car rolled toward her, she’d take the fan and rivet it into place, and do it again and again for 12 hours.
The hard work didn’t bother her, it was the alleged behavior of her fellow Tesla workers that did. Barraza had to walk across the factory floor to reach her workstation. She alleges she could hear workers shouting about her as she walked by.
“That bitch hella thick.”
“She’s got fat titties.”
“She has a fat ass.”
“Oh, man, I want to fuck the shit out of her.”
She says she was reminded of movies where new prisoners are dropped at jail and paraded before ravenous long-timers.
(Tesla filed a motion to compel arbitration and dismiss or stay Barraza’s case, disputing Barraza’s account, which Tesla alleges “relies on an embellished and disputed account of past events.” In support of its defense, Tesla offered up numerous sworn declarations from current Tesla workers who claimed that they never heard Barraza complain about this sort of behavior, and asserted that they did not hear catcalls or other obscene remarks, and that they would have reported them if they had. In its filings, Tesla also alleges that Barraza had problems with attendance, and one supervisor claims that Barraza often talked to him about not wanting to work.)
For the first year, Barraza claims, she endured the behavior she insists happened. She needed the job and, she reasoned, no one wanted to hear a new employee complain about working conditions. So, she says, she put up with it. Besides, like Blickman, she claims some of her bosses were the worst offenders. There was the lead in her section who, she alleges in the complaint, had her phone number for work purposes, and began texting her.
“I just think you sexy asf and wanted to kick it … you know I always had a crush on yo fine ass.”
Barraza says she told him that she was married, something he already knew. He texted back: “You know that only makes me want you more, right?”
Like many of the women I talk with, in addition to the alleged verbal abuse, Barraza also claims in her suit that she dealt with other workers touching and rubbing against her “accidentally” as she tried to do her job. One worker wouldn’t let her pass in tight quarters, she alleges. Instead, he picked her up by the hips and moved her whole body. Later, a female worker came up behind her and put her hand on the small of Barraza’s back and asked her a question.
“Is your butt real?”
Barraza marched over to a supervisor.
“If she touches me again, I will fuck her shit up.”
According to her court filing, the supervisor said he wouldn’t take any action, and chalked up the touching to “cultural differences.” (In its filings, however, Tesla claims that Barraza’s account is false, including alleging that it was Barraza who didn’t want to file an HR report and that the woman was an elderly Filipino woman and English isn’t her first language. Tesla also claims Barraza’s supervisor had another supervisor speak with the woman in her language and explain that it’s never appropriate to touch others at work.)
After a while, Barraza says, she stopped reporting other alleged incidents to her supervisors, as she felt they did not care. She was tough, but after two years, she was starting to fall apart. At home, she told herself that she was doing this for her sons. Still, she couldn’t sleep at night.
One day, she alleges in the complaint, she scanned her badge and turned to leave, but a man had stepped up behind her and put his leg between her legs and rubbed his groin against her. She screamed.
“What the fuck?”
The stranger smiled.
“Oh, my bad.”
He disappeared into the factory.
Barraza went back to her workstation, but started having a panic attack, she says.
“She called me early that morning,” a Tesla co-worker who says she witnessed much of what Barraza endured tells me. “She was just completely distraught. She was just broken.”
Barraza bolted the factory, and says she told her supervisor over the phone what happened. They told her to take her scheduled days off and they’d look into it. (According to Tesla’s filings, her supervisor and a co-worker dispute her account. Both say they offered to help her, and also told her she shouldn’t have left the factory without telling someone.)
Barraza tells me she took the extra step of emailing an HR director the next day, but says she felt stonewalled. After two days off, she went back to work. Her hands began to tremble when she was told it was time for the morning stretches. She couldn’t bear to have strangers behind her as she bent and stretched her body. Instead, she went to her workstation and began stacking all the materials she would need that day. But, she says, her body rebelled, her throat constricted, and she couldn’t breathe. She barely remembers driving home. (Tesla workers admit they heard from a distressed Barraza after she fled the factory.)
Barraza says she didn’t leave her bedroom for three weeks. Her husband brought her meals and had to help her shower. Her sons whispered at the door to see if she was OK. She and Perfecto talked about what they should do. They decided to get a lawyer.
Taking on the world’s richest man and his company hasn’t come without a cost. She used to be able to take her kids down to L.A. on a whim; now, she says, she needs someone to watch her as she goes out to get the mail. “I’m just a blue-collar worker,” she says. “He has everything. I just get so afraid.”
I ask her if she felt pride or a sense of solidarity when other women started filling suits alleging the same kind of abuse. She shakes her head.
“No, I feel sad for them. Some of them are 18 or 19, and it’s their first job. I’m pretty tough, so if I can’t handle it, what do you think those girls will do?”
One of those young women was 19-year-old Samira Sheppard, who filed a harassment suit after Barraza. In its filings, Tesla emphasizes that Sheppard has returned to work at Tesla and hasn’t lodged any complaints since. But according to Sheppard’s filings, there was a good reason she went back: economic desperation — a condition most of the women said was a factor in staying at Tesla longer than they otherwise would have. “I found a job working as a hostess at Applebees, but the pay was meager,” claimed Sheppard. “I was on the verge of not being able to afford a place to live, so I applied to work at Tesla.”
These days, Barraza doesn’t see a lot of Teslas in working-class Modesto. But when she does, she’s struck with the same feeling: “I just wonder how many women were abused to make that one car.”
IT COULD TAKE YEARS for the women’s lawsuits to find their way to a courtroom, if their lawyers succeed in keeping them out of arbitration. According to their lawyers, a common tactic in these types of cases is to delay until the complainant goes away, or accepts a settlement and signs an NDA. Tesla has already filed motions to have the cases moved to binding arbitration and dismissed from court. A judge denied that request in Barraza’s case, but Tesla has filed the same motion in the other six cases. Lowe guesses the cases might not hit trial until 2024.
Tesla’s lawyers, in their motion to dismiss Barraza’s case, disputed her claims, calling them “false” and pointing to a slew of policies and procedures to combat harassment, including recent advancements in HR procedures: “[Tesla] has made significant changes to its harassment policies, practices, and procedures over the past year.” One of the programs, “Respectful Recharge,” was started in December 2021, a month after Barraza’s suit was filed.
Musk recently sent a tweet in the hours after The Wall Street Journal ran a story accusing him of breaking up the marriage of Google founder Sergey Brin by sleeping with Brin’s wife. It wasn’t a denial of the affair; that would come later. Instead the richest man in the world tweeted a meme about a criminal being sentenced to 68 years in jail and asking the judge for one more year so he could reach the hallowed “69.”
A week later, a Tesla stockholder made a motion at a shareholders meeting requesting that the company issue an annual report on its efforts to prevent sexual harassment. Musk currently owns 14 percent of Tesla after selling $6.9 billion in Tesla stock — get it? — in preparation for his pending lawsuits against Twitter. His support would have carried the day. Instead, Tesla released a statement: “The Board continues to oppose initiatives that seek to direct Tesla’s strategic business decisions and day-to-day operations in ways that are not critical to or in furtherance of Tesla’s core mission.” The motion failed.
Elon Musk remains on-brand.