Tesla went from high fives at an all-hands meeting to shutting down its factories - here's how it came to accept the coronavirus

Tesla went from high fives at an all-hands meeting to shutting down its factories - here's how it came to accept the coronavirus
Elon Musk Tesla Shanghai
  • Tesla, the renewable energy and electric car company helmed by Elon Musk, has been slow to respond to the coronavirus.
  • Business Insider spoke with 10 Tesla employees all over the country, all of whom said they feared for their health and livelihood and some felt leadership at Tesla was lacking. The workers asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, but their identities are known to Business Insider.
  • Some employees said they worried that they could lose their jobs for taking time off, or said they felt Tesla lacked basic precautionary measures, like readily available hand sanitizer.
  • While Musk was dismissing the severity of the pandemic on social media, his Nevada Gigafactory was having an all-hands meeting, and employees at Tesla's Fremont, California facility were afraid of violating their county's shelter-in-place order.
  • Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In early March, American businesses were beginning to realize the extent to which the spread of coronavirus would alter daily life in the United States. Some sent workers home, some devised action plans, and some did little to nothing.


Tesla, the electric car company helmed by billionaire Elon Musk was, until a few days ago, in the latter category. It was only after discussions with California authorities in late March that the company accepted that it would have to stop violating a shelter-in-place order and temporarily shut down its 10,000 worker Fremont, California factory, which is located in a county hard hit by the virus. It accepted the same fate for its Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo, New York.

Tesla's giant Gigafactory 1 outside Reno, Nevada, though, remains open, despite the fact that a worker tested positive for COVID-19 in late March. Tesla informed employees about the ill employee on Sunday, March 29.

So even now, as the entire world accepts the grim reality of life in the throes of a global pandemic, Musk's empire is leaving some worried, desperate employees without answers. This has left a gap in leadership, some workers said. Rumors of illness are flying around Tesla's factories, hourly employees are wondering how they'll feed themselves and their families, and the fear of losing one's job is omnipresent.

Business Insider spoke with ten Tesla employees around the country, and all of them bemoaned Musk's handling of the crisis. One employee, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job, told Business Insider that for a man who seems to understand the power of exponential growth in tech, the concept seems lost on Musk when it comes to epidemiology.


The lives of Tesla workers depend on all of that changing, and fast.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

If you work at Tesla and want to talk about how the company has reacted to the coronavirus, email me at llopez@businessinsider.com.

High fives all around

On February 29th all of the almost-8,000 of Tesla's Gigafactory 1 employees got an email inviting them to a "Recognition All Hands" meeting in the factory's showroom. There would be five meetings - one for each shift plus a bonus for non-shift employees - over March 3rd and March 5th, according to the email which was viewed by Business Insider. Meetings this large shut down production, workers said.

Tesla organized the all-hands meeting in an effort to recognize the tremendous progress the company has made over the last year. It had built a factory in China in record time, it was about to launch production of a new vehicle - the Model Y, and it had once again (for the second time in company's 15 year history) posted two back to back profitable quarters.


That is to say that this meeting was to be a celebration. Two Gigafactory 1 employees told Business Insider that free food was served and everyone got a Tesla hat. One employee said Chris Lister, a VP of Operations at the factory, addressed the company and told everyone to look to their neighbor and give them a high five.

"Super irresponsible in my opinion, given the circumstances," said one Gigafactory 1 employee who also requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from the company.

A few days later, on March 6th, Elon Musk sent a tweet that said "The coronavirus panic is dumb."

Musk made this comment even though his business had already been impacted by the coronavirus.

In late January, Tesla was forced to shut down its Shanghai factory because of the coronavirus. After more than a month of denial, the Chinese government was beginning to accept that the coronavirus had reached beyond Wuhan - where the virus first came in contact with humans - and even beyond Hubei, the province where Wuhan is capital.


At first, under order by authorities, the Tesla Shanghai plant instituted temperature checks and other measures to monitor the virus. But at a certain point, the Chinese government realized that was not enough, and like every other business in the country, Tesla was shut down until February 10th. Unfortunately, that shut down has left China's economy in ruin. A market that had once held so much promise for Tesla is now in the beginning of a deep recession.

So by early February, after Tesla's factory was forced to shut down in China, Musk was likely familiar with the havoc that the coronavirus could wreak.

Life in flux

On March 5th Tesla put up new guidelines for how employees should handle the coronavirus. Those guidelines were posted on Tesla's internal website, but employees were not informed that they existed via email. In fact, aside from an e-mail warning employees of coronavirus phishing scams that could put company intellectual property at risk, Tesla had not sent out any health warnings, or notification of attendance policy changes, workers said.

According to an early draft of the rules posted internally, viewed by Business Insider, hourly workers who took time off because of the coronavirus would only be paid for eight hours of their 12-hour shifts. A few days later the company updated its policy and said that it would pay for the full 12 hours.

But among workers, there were still questions about crucial details. Would they have to use paid time off (PTO)? Could they be fired for taking too much time off? What about employees who had, or lived with people who had, preexisting conditions that could make them susceptible to COVID-19?


"People save up their PTO so that they can do things, not so that they can isolate themselves from a public-health crisis," said one salesperson, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

Business Insider spoke to three people who said they are worried about this issue. One had a mother with lung cancer, others had respiratory and other issues themselves. All said they felt it was unfair that they would have to use paid time off to leave work. One said that management didn't really understand the policy, and direct questions went unanswered. Nearly all of the employees Business Insider spoke to said that they and their coworkers were afraid of being fired for missing work.

Elon Musk's social media habit hasn't helped either, according to employees. Across the board, employees said that his behavior in public and toward them has been reckless, and that he's dismissing a crisis. Beyond saying the panic was "dumb," Musk has tweeted misinformation about children being "essentially immune" from the virus, and waffled about Tesla making ventilators for hospitals in need, though the company has started to deliver machines to medical facilities.

Meanwhile, some salespeople and factory workers said they were worried there isn't enough hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes to go around. They said they worry about interacting with costumers and coworkers in close space together. Seven of the employees said that Tesla was not enforcing social distancing measures.

"It [the virus] could spread real easy," said one Fremont worker who requested anonymity.


On March 12th Tesla canceled an internal career fair at the Gigafactory 1, according to an email viewed by Business Insider. It did not explain why.

The best of your knowledge

On March 16th Elon Musk addressed his workers via email. He said that to the best of his knowledge not one of the 56,000 employees at Tesla had tested positive for COVID-19. He also said that he believed only 0.01% of the world's population would get the virus.

"My frank opinion remains that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself," he said. "If there is a massive redirection of medical resources out of proportion to the danger, it will result in less available care to those with critical medical needs, which does not serve the greater good."

This view was in stark contrast with what was going on in the outside world. The same day Musk sent this email, Alameda County, where Tesla's California plant is located, was ordered to shelter-in-place and non-essential businesses were ordered to shutter. New York, where Tesla's Buffalo Gigafactory 2 is located, had been in a state of emergency since March 7th.

Musk's factories, however, would stay open. Guidelines instructing employees to use PTO if they were ill or concerned that they could be infected would not change. In a March 18th email, Tesla Human Resources attorney Valerie Workman sent a memo to workers stating that if an employee didn't have any PTO left to stay home during this global pandemic they could borrow it from the company, or they could simply take unpaid time off.


"There will be no disciplinary action for attendance based on health or the impossibility to come to work," she wrote.

But for some Tesla workers, there isn't much of a choice, especially the hourly workers on the factory floor. Those who can't afford to miss work are finding themselves doing double duty too, according to three employees who spoke to Business Insider. They have to make up for the employees who have left.

At Fremont, meanwhile, some employees said they were worried about violating the county's shelter-in-place order. The media was breathlessly covering whether or not Tesla was in violation. Tesla argued that it was not, saying that it was an essential business that should remain open. On March 18th, Alameda County said that the factory could stay open, but could not manufacture cars. Two Tesla employees who worked at the factory on that date told Business Insider that Tesla was running some production lines that day.

Shut it down

"It's just insane how they repeatedly keep getting away with disregarding law enforcement orders," the Gigafactory 1 worker told Business Insider on March 19th. In Nevada, they said, employees were angry and nervous about what was happening in California. They felt they were being kept in the dark.

Over the week in an effort to show more concern about the virus, Tesla had put up signs about workplace hygiene social distancing around Gigafactory 1. It also removed half the chairs in the factory cafeteria, which had just led to fierce competition for seating, said one employee.


Everyone at Tesla got an email about shutting down Fremont and Buffalo at 1:42 PM PST on March 19th. It was from Valerie Workman, and said that after talking to authorities the factories would suspend operations beginning at the end of the day March 23rd. It also said that employees suspended factories would receive paid time off.

Employees at Gigafactory 1 received an email from Lister on March 20th saying that their plant would remain open as it was an essential energy producer shortly after that. The next day the line to get inside the factory stretched long outside the door as employees had their temperatures checked before they entered, according to a worker who shared a photo of the lines with Business Insider.

Of course, the horror of the coronavirus pandemic is just beginning in the United States, according to experts. So this is a situation that remains in flux. To address that, Workman sent a company-wide message subject line "Send Your Questions to COVIDHRANSWERS" on March 20th, which was viewed by Business Insider. It included an email where employees could direct questions.

As so many company emails do - even in normal times - Workman's note elicited a reply all (also viewed by Business Insider) from one frustrated worker. It read: "No one can give me an answer so why waste my time and get myself all frustrated ????? Why ???"

The only response that the employee received was generated by Tesla's mailer-daemon: "Valerie Workman would like to recall the message 'Send Your Questions to COVIDHRANSWERS'."


If you work at Tesla and want to talk about how the company has reacted to the coronavirus, email me at llopez@businessinsider.com or mmatousek@businessinsider.com.

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