SAN FRANCISCO — Jessica Barraza was only months into her job at Tesla’s factory when she said she began experiencing near daily harassment. The work environment became so hostile it triggered anxiety, leading her to take a medical leave with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, she added.
Barraza on Thursday filed a rare lawsuit against the electric vehicle maker, alleging Tesla fostered a climate of sexual harassment at its Fremont, Calif., factory, where she says she was subjected to catcalling and aggressive physical touching.
Co-workers would describe her as having a “Coke bottle figure,” “onion booty,” “fat a–,” “fat a– t–ies,” Barraza, 38, recalled in an interview with The Post. In the suit, she alleges a male co-worker picked her up by her waist, “pressing against her torso under her breasts” and placed her next to him. In a separate incident, the lawsuit alleges, a male co-worker stuck his leg between her thighs as she was clocking back in from lunch. (Another employee corroborated the incident to The Post.) That was the last straw, she said.
“After almost three years of experiencing all the harassment, it robs your sense of security — it almost dehumanizes you,” said Barraza, a production associate who works on the Tesla Model 3.
In the suit, filed in California Superior Court in Alameda County, Barraza says she was subject to vulgar comments about her body, was propositioned by a supervisory lead over text message and was frequently touched inappropriately by co-workers, who she alleges brushed up against her backside multiple times a week.
The lawsuit describes “rampant sexual harassment at Tesla,” alleging “nightmarish conditions” and a factory floor that “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.” Barraza filed complaints to Tesla HR in September and October detailing her experience in the factory; the complaints were viewed by The Post. She says the company did not address the harassment. It was unclear if Tesla acknowledged the claims internally.
Internal disputes rarely come to light, employees allege, and lawsuits are uncommon because Tesla requires many workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements, which mandate that disputes are settled outside of court. Barraza’s attorneys say the agreement is “illegal and unenforceable.”
Barraza said this workplace culture is bred at the top of the company, citing a joking tweet by CEO Elon Musk referencing a university he planned to start: Texas Institute of Technology & Science. (He left readers to interpret the acronym: TITS.)
“That doesn’t set a good example for the factory — it almost gives it like an … ‘he’s tweeting about it, it has to be okay,’ ” she said. “It’s not fair to myself, to my family to other women who are working there.”
Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The company, which has not had an active public relations department since 2020, does not typically respond to press inquiries.
The suit is being brought under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, citing sexual harassment and failure to prevent sexual harassment under the law.
Three current and former Tesla workers corroborated aspects of Barraza’s account in interviews with The Post. They said they witnessed incidents recounted by the plaintiff or themselves experienced sexual harassment at Tesla’s Fremont facilities, describing the culture as male-driven, retaliatory and unwelcoming to women.
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This culture was especially pronounced among male-dominated production crews who multiple employees said would prey on new female employees as if they were “fresh meat,” in Barraza’s description, engaging in verbal and physical harassment. The behavior led some women to take extended leaves of absence, and others to quit altogether.
Alisa Blickman, 33, said the same patterns play out at Tesla’s nearby seat factory where she works, also in Fremont. She described witnessing male workers using “the number system” to rank the attractiveness of female colleagues, she said.
“I don’t know if it’s the 12 hour shifts that get to these guys or what it is — they just act like they’ve never seen girls in there or something,” said Blickman, a production associate. “You really feel like a piece of meat in there.” Blickman filed an HR complaint, viewed by The Post. She is on covid-related leave, she said, but remains employed by Tesla.
Complaints to supervisors went unheeded, Barraza alleges. In one instance, she said a supervisor overheard her complaining about a co-worker staring at her breasts. “Maybe you shouldn’t wear shirts that draw attention to your chest,” her supervisor said, according to the suit. Barraza countered that she was “wearing a work shirt provided by Tesla.”
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Tesla has faced public accusations that its company culture is hostile to people of color.
The suit comes a month after Tesla was ordered to pay nearly $137 million to an employee a federal court found was subjected to racist abuse, discrimination and harassment at the Fremont plant. In the suit, a former elevator operator, Owen Diaz, said he faced a hostile work environment at Tesla involving “daily racist epithets” such as the n-word.
In its response to the suit, Tesla said Diaz was not technically employed by the company because he was a contract employee who worked for staffing agencies; Diaz, the company argued, could not prove he was subjected by Tesla to a “race discrimination violation.”
“We continue to grow and improve in how we address employee concerns,” Tesla’s Vice President of People, Valerie Capers Workman, said in response to the verdict. “Occasionally, we’ll get it wrong, and when that happens we should be held accountable.”
The initial suit by Diaz, who is Black, said that workers at the company encountered a scene “straight from the Jim Crow era,” and many experienced frequent racist harassment while supervisors didn’t respond.
“Tesla’s progressive image was a facade papering over its regressive, demeaning treatment of African-American employees,” the suit said.
Another lawsuit filed in 2017, which remains active, called the company a “hotbed for racist behavior.”
“We don’t know how many were deterred from pursuing their claims by the same kinds of comments that Jessica described,” said David A. Lowe, a partner at Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe LLP, which is representing Barraza. “We don’t know how many are out there waiting.”
When she began working for Tesla, Barraza signed an agreement requiring any employment law claims be arbitrated outside of the court system. Her attorneys claim that the case bears similarities to the racial harassment suit. Attorneys are seeking compensation for Barraza along with a court injunction to stop harassment at the factory. In addition, they said they plan to file a California Private Attorneys General Act claim, allowing Barraza and other potential victims to recover civil penalties.
“I think it’s a very similar dynamic as far as how horribly the African-American employees in that case were treated and how women were treated,” Lowe said. “It’s the same kind of dominance and disparagement and dehumanization really in both cases; it’s just that one is racist, the other is misogynist — you could substitute the language and the behavior.”
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Nallely Gamboa, a former Tesla production associate, said she alerted senior managers to harassment at the factory and quit after the behavior didn’t stop.
“Being a woman working at Tesla was very uncomfortable when it came to male associates, supervisors, leads,” she said. “I’ve seen with my own eyes and I went through it myself.”
In some instances, women perpetuated the harassment, Gamboa recounted. Gamboa said she was working on a task when she felt something between her thighs. It was a broomstick, wielded by a female colleague.
“She thought it was funny; she started smirking,” she recalled.
Gamboa says she spoke with a supervisor about the incident. Eventually she was moved to work in a different part of the factory, which multiple employees said was a common pattern for those who complained about sexual harassment.
James Ramirez, who worked with Barraza until he left Tesla in April 2020, said he witnessed catcalling, physical harassment and management inaction during his time with the company. He said he heard inappropriate comments directed at Barraza, “stuff that shouldn’t be said in a work environment.”
During the graveyard shift they worked, men routinely ogled women on the factory floor, he said. “[When] a girl would walk across the platform all the guys would be like ‘hey b—-, hey’ just catcalling — very inappropriate behavior,” he recalled.
He said it disturbed him to see Barraza, who he described as a dedicated employee who outworked many of her colleagues on the line, distraught by what she had experienced. “When she told me and she started crying on the phone and telling me all this stuff, it sounded like a completely different person,” he said. “It sounded like she was walking on quicksand.”
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Tesla is expected to file a legal response to the complaint, but could also publicly dispute the claims. The company has typically sought to reassure workers in such instances of its principles — or aggressively fought back against the allegations. In response to the 2017 suit alleging a “hotbed for racist behavior” the company published a blog post calling it a “Hotbed of Misinformation.” And last month, after the jury verdict in the racial harassment trial, Tesla’s Workman took exception to the verdict, but said efforts to address employee concerns were a work in progress.
“While we strongly believe that these facts don’t justify the verdict reached by the jury in San Francisco, we do recognize that in 2015 and 2016 we were not perfect,” she said. “We’re still not perfect. But we have come a long way from 5 years ago.”