Hundreds of Silicon Valley janitors and bus drivers at the electric car manufacturer Tesla who were laid off several weeks ago are now struggling to pay for housing, food, and medication.
Tesla, the world’s second most valuable automaker, hasn't kept its low wage contractors on payroll, as Facebook, Google, and most other Silicon Valley tech firms have committed to keep paying hourly workers during the pandemic. Even Apple, which initially planned to lay off bus drivers and janitors, relented in late March under public pressure, promising to pay contractors in full.
“Early on we had most tech giants, Google, Facebook, Cisco, Apple, Microsoft, all committed to keep workers on or offering continued pay and benefits in the case of layoffs,” Dianne Solis, the vice president of SEIU-United Service Workers West, which represents 11,000 janitors in northern California, told Motherboard. “We were hoping Tesla would follow suit but they are an outlier.”
Esther Garcia Servin, a contracted janitor with Brilliant General Maintenance, who cleaned the floors at Tesla’s Fremont factory before she lost her job, rents a single bedroom in San Jose for $1,000 a month for her and her two kids, and said she cannot pay for May rent, let alone food, gas, and medical bills.
“Things have been really hard. I am a single mother who has two kids here and supports three kids in Mexico,” Garcia Servin told Motherboard in Spanish. “I feel discriminated against. Tesla needs to have more of a conscience. I worked many hours of overtime for them.”
Tesla’s decision to lay off contracted workers without pay followed remarks from CEO Elon Musk downplayed “panic” about the pandemic as “dumb.” On March 19, after defying local orders to shut down its factories and facing public outcry, Tesla closed its California factories.
In late March, Tesla laid off roughly 150 unionized shuttle drivers, according to Teamsters Local 853. Less than a week later, 130 unionized janitors who clean Tesla’s auto-manufacturing plants in Fremont and Lathrop lost their jobs, Solis, the union official said.
“This is having a devastating effect on workers, who are low wage workers and not seen,” Solis said. “They’re subcontracted and that’s the way Tesla tries to remove any responsibility. Many of these workers have chronic conditions like diabetes and don’t have healthcare. There are no other jobs out there right now, and these workers don’t know how they’ll pay May rent or put food on the table.”
Marciela Betancourt, had been collecting trash and cleaning bathrooms at Tesla's Fremont factory for two months for $13.50 an hour when she was laid off and lost her healthcare. She was working paycheck to paycheck before the crisis hit, and since then, she has had to visit her local church for food donations.
“Everything was pretty good before I got laid off. I liked my coworkers, and there was a community of support among us during the pandemic,” Betancourt told Motherboard in Spanish. “But now I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent. I have diabetes and depend on prescriptions to regulate it and I have a $800 hospital bill from March. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Tesla has also remained an outlier among Silicon Valley tech companies in its treatment of its contracted bus drivers, who shuttle auto-manufacturing workers from the Central Valley (where housing is cheaper) to Tesla’s Bay Area factories.
Companies such as Facebook, Apple, PayPal, Salesforce, Twitter, and Amazon, and LinkedIn with Silicon Valley offices have continued to pay their shuttle drivers throughout the pandemic, according to Stacy Murphy, a business representative at Teamsters Local 853, which represents roughly 1,000 shuttle bus drivers in Silicon Valley, told Motherboard.
After Tesla announced the layoffs, Compass Transportation and WeDriveU, the contractors which employ Tesla’s shuttle bus drivers, agreed to extend health benefits for two months but not pay.
“When the pandemic hit, Facebook continued to pay all of its subcontractors, and the rest of the tech companies followed suit,” Murphy told Motherboard. “But Elon Musk is not the biggest union fan, and he’s not paying his subcontractors.”
Although Elon Musk has claimed that he is “neutral” toward unions, he earned a reputation for union busting efforts at his Tesla factories, in 2018 threatening to take away employee stock options in retaliation for union organizing. Tesla faced union busting complaints during a failed United Auto Workers union drive at Tesla’s Fremont plant in 2018. That year, the United Steelworkers and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers began a separate drive to unionize Tesla’s Gigafactory in Buffalo, New York, where the company came under heat for firing union organizers.
Until recently Tesla hired its Silicon Valley janitors from a non union contractor, according to Solis.
Union officials at the Teamsters 853 and SEIU United Service Workers West say they expect that Tesla will rehire the workers when the factories reopen.
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“Elon Musk is making a conscious decision to say Tesla doesn’t care about its contractors,” Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director at the grassroots community organization, Silicon Valley Rising, told Motherboard. “Musk is saying ‘we’re not standing by our workers and their communities.’ And he could afford it. It’s a decision.”
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.