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Tesla will "temporarily suspend production" at its Fremont and Buffalo factories after March 23 following several tense days of back-and-forth with local officials, according to an email sent to workers and shared with Protocol on Thursday afternoon.
Workers were told to "continue to report to your current location through end of day Monday as current operations will continue over the next few days," according to the email from North American human resources lead Valerie Capers Workman. "Starting Tuesday, March 24, we will transition to minimum basic operations to support our vehicle and energy service operations and customers, and Supercharging infrastructure, as directed by authorities."
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Despite ongoing safety concerns from Fremont workers and their families shared with Protocol, Capers Workman said in the email that the company is "taking all recommended precautions and continues to operate as a national critical infrastructure as defined by the federal government." In an apparent nod to the local political dynamics, Capers Workman wrote that, "Continued operations in certain locations due to shelter in place restrictions have been challenging to our employees, our families and our suppliers."
This was welcome news to worried employees in the factory, who had reported not feeling like the company was taking much precaution to protect them.
"People were cheering in here when we opened [the email], because we've all been pretty on edge," said one manufacturing worker who'd gone in to work at Tesla on Thursday. "It's disappointing that it's not til Monday, but we're glad that something is happening."
The Fremont Police Department had said Thursday that the police chief and city officials would meet with Tesla management to discuss "cooperation for compliance" with shelter-in-place orders. But employees had been stressed for days.
"Employees are scared. No one wants to lose their job," said one worker on the Wednesday night shift at the factory, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job. "The county needs to come in the factory to see for their self."
In an email Wednesday night, Tesla reassured workers that "those of you who arrive at our Fremont factory tomorrow will see that we are handing out masks to be worn throughout the day, taking temperatures prior to entry, adding more hygiene stations inside the facility, rearranging operations to promote social distancing," and increasing cleaning. Personnel had been reduced to "only essential employees," said the email, also from Capers Workman, according to a copy reviewed by Protocol.
But one assembly worker who reported to work early Thursday said there were no signs of slowing down. His temperature was not taken, he was given a thin white paper mask, and then he went to work a few feet away from co-workers. His department had actually churned out more parts than usual on Wednesday night, as the company speeds up work on the Model Y, said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job, but who shared photos and internal emails with Protocol.
"It looks like any other day here," the worker said. "All we've been told is if we feel sick to let them know, so they can basically put us on a list of people to get tested."
Sturdier respirator masks were available in vending machines, the employee said, but only for shift leads or supervisors who could get them by swiping their Tesla badges. Ensuring the CDC-recommended 6 feet of separation between work stations, he said, was not logistically feasible.
"It's impossible to run the line without people being close to each other," said the worker, who is particularly concerned about older co-workers. "There are employees in the factory in the vulnerable age range, and even more employees who have family members who are vulnerable."
Tesla did not respond to detailed questions about workers' allegations. Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Ray Kelly, who had been taking the lead in county communications about the order and Tesla all week, referred Protocol to the city of Fremont, which did not respond to repeated detailed requests for comment.
On Wednesday night, Elon Musk, a COVID-19 skeptic who has called the panic "dumb," appeared to change his stance slightly. Musk replied to a torrent of online criticism about keeping the factory open during a health emergency by saying that he was open to making ventilators at the factory "if there is a shortage." General Motors and Ford, which have suspended their auto manufacturing amid the crisis, have reportedly already been in talks with the White House to use idled factories to make ventilators. Many U.S. hospitals have warned they lack crucial ventilators to treat patients with serious symptoms.
Soon after, Musk responded to skeptical tweets about the numbers of new global COVID-19 cases. "My guess is that the panic will cause more harm than the virus," he wrote, "If that hasn't happened already."
Multiple Tesla workers who spoke with Protocol questioned Tesla and the county's math on how much the workforce would be reduced when it said 2,500 workers.
One Model 3 assembly worker said that "2,500 a shift seems normal." There are four daily shifts, he said, which would still total about 10,000 workers.
The shelter-in-place order currently in effect in Alameda County says that, "the health officer requests that the sheriff and all chiefs of police in the county ensure compliance with and enforce this order." When Protocol asked the sheriff's department who is responsible for evaluating worker concerns, spokesperson Kelly said, "Have them report this to the city of Fremont."
Neither Tesla nor Fremont police nor several other local officials responded to Protocol's requests for clarity about the number of workers authorized in the factory now. On Thursday, Fremont police tweeted that "Police Chief Kimberly Petersen and members of our city management team will meet with Tesla factory management today to discuss cooperation for compliance with the county health officer's order."
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On the ground, the uncertainty about if and when government officials might intervene at the factory had forced workers into the difficult position of weighing missed paychecks or the health of their families against Tesla's insistence that it's safe to come to work.
"I do remind him that he puts our family at risk every day he goes to work," said the wife of one factory worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her husband's job. "Plus, I have a compromised immune system." She said her husband was given a substantial-looking mask by Tesla on Thursday morning.
The spouse of a Tesla supplier who brings materials to the factory also contacted Protocol on Wednesday concerned about her husband going to work. He was weighing dipping into vacation days to avoid the factory, since other sick leave was not available.
"My company has provided disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, and that's all they've done," the worker said. "My company is controlled by Tesla, so until Tesla tells my company to stop sending parts, there is nothing they can do."
Hourly Tesla factory workers in Fremont and Buffalo will be paid their normal rates through March 23, and then the company "will provide paid leave during suspended operations," according to the new email sent Thursday. The company had said in emails earlier this week reviewed by Protocol that workers could "borrow up to 80 hours" of paid time off if their balance is low.
A Tesla Model 3 assembly worker told Protocol that there had been discussion of more-serious precautions inside the factory for days, but that many changes were yet to materialize. He signed a waiver over the weekend allowing the company to take his temperature, he said, and the forms also said that more social distancing would happen.
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"Seven people working on the same car makes it impossible to follow those recommendations," said the worker, who asked for anonymity to protect his job, but who also shared internal emails with Protocol.
Rumors swirled that workers have been leaving with flulike symptoms, according to text exchanges between co-workers from Wednesday night. In the messages shared with Protocol, they wondered what it might take for the factory to join much of the rest of the country in shutting down.
"My bet is they're going to just keep going," one worker said to another. "Who's going to check it and stop them?"
According to the email sent to workers Thursday, Tesla decided to close the factory down because it was challenging to continue operations amid the shelter-in-place restrictions.
"Mostly glad they finally decided health is more important than a few dollars," said one Fremont worker on Thursday afternoon.
Lauren Hepler ( @lahepler) is a former reporter for Protocol covering how people live and work in Silicon Valley. She previously covered development, energy, and tech for The New York Times, The Guardian, the LA Times, the Silicon Valley Business Journal, and others. Lauren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (just ask for Signal), and you can share information with her anonymously via Protocol's SecureDrop. She grew up in Ohio and lives in Oakland.
Levi Sumagaysay (@levisu) is a former Silicon Valley reporter at Protocol. Previously, she was a tech reporter at The San Jose Mercury News, where she covered everything from artificial intelligence to IPOs, tech culture, news about big tech, and more. Levi has edited or written technology news since the first dot-com boom, and was for a time the writer of Good Morning Silicon Valley, one of the earliest tech blogs/newsletters.