Tesla Severance Packages Set To “Chill Valid Employee Complaints” About Safety Issues

Tesla is trying to silence former employees from speaking out about workplace safety issues, it appears from language being included in new severance packages.

Bloomberg reported today that Tesla is trying to curb former employees from speaking out about safety issues that they may have incurred on the job, and it is doing so by including new language in severance packages that it is issuing to 9% of its employee workforce that it is laying off.

Those employees who are accepting severance packages are being asked to give up certain rights as it relates to speaking publicly about workplace safety issues. The Bloomberg article noted:

Language in a confidential severance agreement Tesla Inc. is using as part of the biggest job cut in its history is likely to deter dismissed employees from going public with worker safety concerns, according to employment-law experts.

A proposed severance agreement Tesla presented to one of the more than 3,000 workers dismissed last week required acknowledgment that the employee “had the opportunity to raise any safety concerns, safety complaints, or whistleblower activities against the company, and that if any safety concerns, safety complaints, or whistleblower activities were raised during your employment, they were addressed to your satisfaction.”

The document obtained and reviewed by Bloomberg News also barred the former worker from sharing “business-related” information; required that the ex-employee assist Tesla’s defense against claims; released any claims made against Tesla; and dictated that any disputes under the agreement will be handled in individual arbitration.

The article continued with Tesla’s response. Apparently the company has stated that the “language about safety matters to ensure that issues get addressed, according to a spokesman, who added that employees who don’t believe those words apply to their case should come forward and share their concerns.”

Experts consulted by Bloomberg seem to agree that regardless of whether or not the language is the industry standard or not, it’s likely being done to help absolve Tesla of any legal liabilities:

“I do think the agreement will chill valid employee complaints,” said Brishen Rogers, a law professor at Temple University. “A reasonable worker would just keep their mouth shut, rather than risk losing their severance pay.”

Some employment lawyers say the language offered by Tesla doesn’t depart much from what’s become standard in such situations. The agreement probably goes into greater detail about safety issues because they’ve been a subject of controversy for the company, said Paul Secunda, who directs Marquette University’s Labor & Employment Law Program.

“It might be — because of some history with safety issues — that they want to make sure that they’re not leaving unresolved safety issues with severed employees to be resolved later — they’re trying to make this as final as possible,” said Secunda, who previously worked on severance agreements as an attorney for companies.

“When you’re an attorney working for a company like Tesla, what you’re trying to figure out is what kind of legal exposure does Tesla have, and what kind of certainty, predictability, and closure are you seeking to buy through these severance agreements,” he said. “Because you don’t want to have to deal with these in the future.”

This development comes after a  lawsuit was filed just two weeks ago by the former Safety Director of Tesla. We reported on that development here.

That lawsuit accuses Tesla of “unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and work practices,” including chemical and oil spills, chemical fires, workplace injury rate discrepancies and inaccuracies, and a failure to report or document workplace injuries.”

Questions and concerns about workplace safety incidents at Tesla continue, with the latest chapter in the story coming from the company’s former safety director who is suing the company. In a lawsuit that was first reported by Jalopnik, the company’s former safety director alleges that he was fired in retaliation for bringing up concerns about safety and incident reporting – the same types of concerns that were detailed in a Reveal expose that was published in April. The Reveal expose prompted a safety investigation from California regulators. 

According to Jalopnik, Director of Environmental Health, Safety and Sustainability Carlos Ramirez – who had previously worked as Vice President of Safety for SolarCity – was fired in June 2017. Allegedly, in order to embrace his new job as director of safety at Tesla, he needed to audit the company’s incident reporting system, which is essentially a database of accidents and injuries.

As he details in the lawsuit, once he looked into this incident reporting system that he found “numerous instances of lack of treatment of Tesla employees that suffered workplace injuries, recordkeeping violations, and improper classification of workplace injuries to avoid treating and reporting workplace injuries.”

He then reported all this to Tesla, who subsequently fired him weeks later in order to shut him up. He also alleges in the lawsuit that Tesla simply made untrue statements to the state and the public regarding safety at their Fremont plant.

As Jalopnik adds, workplace safety issues came to light after Reveal’s expose in April:

Issues surrounding Tesla’s workplace records came to light in April, after the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting’s publication Reveal put out a story that said Tesla improperly classifies injuries on the OSHA 300 report—paperwork by the government required to log serious work-related injuries and illnesses—which effectively bolstered its safety record.

California regulators launched an investigation the next day, without saying whether it was in response to Reveal’s report. Tesla vehemently denied the allegations and insisted its workplace injury rate is better than the auto industry’s average. (Incredibly, the automaker went so far as to label Reveal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news outlet, of being an “extremist organization.”)

Among other things, the Reveal article questioned the lack of the color yellow – used to mark risky areas or hazards in a factory setting. Reveal was told that this was because “Elon does not like the color yellow.” Photos in the Reveal expose show plenty of red…

…but no little yellow.

The new Jalopnik article notes that Ramirez seemed to be front and center in noticing these very same issues, as well as questionable incident reporting standards. For instance, it was reported that during May he attended a workplace meeting where he reported unsafe working conditions. Weeks after that, according to the lawsuit, he was fired.

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