Tesla is facing serious allegations brought to light in a lawsuit filed by three former employees of SolarCity.
The ex-employees, Andrew Staples, Robert Ray and Anquetta White, filed to the San Diego County Superior Court last Wednesday a complaint which includes allegations of harassment and discrimination based on their sexual orientation, wrongful termination, failure to pay wages and creation of fraudulent sales accounts for employee bonuses and inflated investor value.
The lawsuit is led by Staples, a homosexual man, who alleges that on multiple occasions company supervisor Grant Katzenellenbogen used slurs against him, including calling him “p***y,” “b***h” and “f****t” on multiple occasions. Staples states that he reported the harassment to management on multiple levels, including reaching out to Elon Musk, but that these reports ultimately fell on deaf or uncaring ears.
Staples alleges that instead of disciplining Katzenellenbogen, the company enabled the behavior to continue before terminating Staples’ employment on May 31, 2017. Staples cites his complaints against Katzenellenbogen as being “substantial motivating reasons” for the company to fire him.
Staples is filing for wrongful termination, as is Ray. Ray began working for SolarCity in August 2016 and was terminated on the same day as Staples, but for separate reasons. Ray was told that his termination was due to his position within the company being eliminated. Ray, a 59-year-old man is alleging age discrimination, citing the informed belief that his position was not terminated, rather that he was “replaced by a significantly younger individual that was less than 30 years old.”
The lawsuit also alleges widespread fraud and value inflation within SolarCity, with the plaintiffs alleging to have witnessed “Defendants’ employees creating fake potential sales accounts that were not only used to support unjustified bonuses for those employees but also disseminated to investors and shareholders to justify an unreasonably high valuation of SolarCity, which Plaintiffs believed constituted fraud… Defendants’ employees signing contracts on behalf of Defendants for their own personal gain, which Plaintiffs also believed constituted fraud.”
The three former employees also allege that they were not properly compensated for their work at SolarCity. The plaintiffs claim that they were paid less than minimum wage for their labor and regularly worked overtime which they were not compensated for. Furthermore, when the plaintiffs were employed, they would frequently be denied their mandatory break for a meal for every five hours of work. The two issues happened in conjunction, with the three working overtime without receiving overtime payment or a break for a meal.
Tesla has responded to the allegations, disputing Staples’ claims of harassment over his sexual orientation. The company’s prepared statement reads “The plaintiffs roles were eliminated last year when, as a part of Tesla’s integration with SolarCity we decided to close out our door-to-door sales channel for energy products – a decision that was announced publicly – and covered extensively in the media – and the suggestions that they were eliminated for any other reason is false. During his time at SolarCity, Mr. Staples never once raised concerns about discrimination or harassment over his sexual orientation. He and Ms. White did make claims about other issues, and these claims were fully investigated and responded to, not ignored… Tesla is absolutely against any form of discrimination, harrasment, or unfair treatment of any kind by or against anyone, and we take any concerns raised by employees very seriously, as we did here. In this case, the facts simply don’t support the plaintiffs’ story.”
This is not the first scandal SolarCity has had to face, but it is the first since the company was purchased by Tesla in 2016. Prior to acquisition, the company was under investigation by the Department of Justice over inflating the value PV systems in order to exploit a federal cash grant program, while claiming the program was being underfunded by the government. That case was settled in September of last year, with Tesla agreeing to pay $29.5 million in penalties but not admitting fault.
An industry problem
This lawsuit is the latest in a number of recent incidents where employees have alleged discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation, race and age. Just last month, an African-American former employee of residential installer Vivint Solar accused members of the company of calling him “n****r”, as well as constructing a “white-only” fort within the workspace.
Furthermore, Ray’s claims of age discrimination are not unsupported. According to the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census, 11% of the solar industry;s workforce is over the age of 55, which is less than half of the the 23% national average among other industries.
While these are especially ugly marks on the industry, there are many working to improve diversity and inclusion. In May, the NAACP and Vote Solar teamed up for an op-ed that attacked the issue, while highlighting measures that can be taken for improvement. In an op-ed for pv magazine, Erica Mackie, co-founder and CEO of GRID Alternatives, argued that the solar industry is not immune to this country’s history of systemic racism. She also outlined that as disgusting as these events are, they open up opportunities to tackle these issues and improve the industry for everyone involved.