Sunday Read: Recognizing Tesla Whistleblowers
This overview of Tesla whistleblowers’ role was sent as part of NWC’s “Sunday Read” series that aims to educate supporters about whistleblower stories and whistleblower legislative or policy initiatives and current events. For more information like this, please join our mailing list.
In recent weeks, celebrity billionaire Elon Musk has been making headlines, including in whistleblower news. Mr. Musk is the CEO of several companies and best known for his electric vehicle company — Tesla. Starting in December 2021, National Whistleblower Center has commented on the whistleblower situation at Tesla and as the billionaires has remarked on important employee decisions at Twitter, the company he recently acquired, we have growing concerns about the way Musk’s history of mocking whistleblowers might impact ever more potential tech industry whistleblowers.
In this week’s Sunday Reading, NWC names and celebrates Tesla whistleblowers encouraging you to familiarize yourself with their stories.
Whistleblowers Report Rampant Harassment and Misrepresentations:
- Steven Henkes, a former Tesla field quality manager, told the SEC in 2019 that Tesla failed to properly disclose to shareholders and the public how fire risks associated with solar panel system defects. Henkes alleged that this misconduct occurred in 2016, the same year Tesla required employees to sign an overly broad confidentiality agreement and Musk was penalized for coercive anti-union texts. Henkes was fired from Tesla in 2020. He claims his termination was in retaliation for raising safety concerns. It is believed that the Securities and Exchange Commission is currently investigating Henkes’ whistleblower complaint.
- Christina Balan, a former Tesla Engineer, reported concerns about safety and business practices at Tesla. Balan’s concerns about the potential safety hazards in the then-upcoming Model S luxury sedan, and about contracts she believed were awarded more on friendships with suppliers than on quality and price in 2014. According to Balan, rather than fix the problem, Tesla forced her to quit. And, in 2019 the Company accused Balan of breaking the law. Since then, Balan has been in court fighting Tesla’s attempt to use arbitration clauses in her contract to silence her retaliation suit..
- Jessica Barraza, a former Tesla factory employee, was forced to endure sexual harassment so severe that it resulted in a Post-Traumatic Stress disorder diagnosis. Barraza sued the company, and her suit inspired others to come forward. An article from The Verge described part of the reason Barraza’s case gave way to slew of others: “Lawsuits against Tesla are relatively rare in part because, as Barraza’s lawsuit notes, the company requires employees to sign arbitration agreements as a condition of employment, meaning the workers waive their right to a jury or court trial.”
- Michala Curran, a Tesla factory employee, alleged sexually harassment starting in her first week at the Tesla factory. As a result, she joined a lawsuit brought by a group of her colleagues. According to Curran, Tesla pushed her out of court and into arbitration, much like Balan. Curran is just one example of the rampant harassment Tesla factory employees face.
- Owen Diaz, a former employee at a Tesla factory in Fremont California was subjected to unbearable racial harassment at the factory and sued. In 2022, Mr. Diaz’s settlement was reduced after Tesla contested the $137 million awarded granted him by a jury. The Guardian reported employee complaints about work conditions at the Freemont California Tesla factory and “allegations of mandatory overtime, high rates of injury and low wages at the factory,” in 2017, and since then there have been continuous concerning reports about conditions at the factory. Jessica Barraza, was also a Fremont employee.
- Karl Hansen, a former Tesla employee blew the whistle at Tesla’s Gigafactory alleging theft of raw materials, surveillance of Tesla employees, and drug trafficking activities at the factory in 2018. Mr. Hansen’s whistleblowing was followed by the elimination of his role. And, Elon Musk sent a message to a major news outlet disparaging Hansen. In 2022, a District Court in Nevada mandated Mr. Hansen to go through Tesla’s arbitration process and stayed his whistleblower claims.
- Martin Tripp, a former Tesla employee, filed a complaint with the SEC outlining concerns about Tesla batteries, and was subsequently sued by Tesla. Tesla prevailed in their case against Tripp the court required hi, to pay the company $400,000 for trade secret violations arising out of information he shared with the press — this is yet another example of media whistleblowers lacking protection and why NWC has called for more explicit recognition of media whistleblowers in our SEC petition.
Musk’s History of Being Sanctioned and Sued:
In March 2021, the National Labor Relations Board issued decision outlining workplace violations at Tesla by Musk. In 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission Musk was sanctioned Musk for of misrepresentations he made on Twitter. And, Musk has a history of conduct that fosters a culture of harassment and bullying facing multiple suits that allege Tesla employees are regularly forced to endure catcalling, unwanted touching, and racial slurs — just to get through a day at work. Musk mocks whistleblowers and was penalized for taking to Twitter to union bust at Tesla. The stories of Tesla whistleblowers should be a warning to Twitter employees and board members.
Twitter Employees are Worried about Musk’s Takeover:
An April 29 article in Reuter’s outlines the concerns Twitter employees expressed during an emergency meeting at Twitter. The employees expressed that they “feared Musk’s erratic behavior could destabilize Twitter’s business and hurt it financially” and told Reuters that they were told “don’t leak and do a job you are proud of.” According to the article, employee concerns are an indicator that employees may soon choose to leave the company. Also reported by Reuters, Musk further harmed employee trust by taking to Twitter to attack an executive at the company to which former executive Dick Costolo, responded “Bullying is not leadership…What’s going on? You’re making an executive at the company you just bought the target of harassment and threats[.]” Taken together, Musk’s harassment of a Twitter executive and the instructions not to “leak” as initial actions as the company’s new owner indicate an anti-whistleblower workplace in the future at Twitter. NWC will keep an eye on twitter and any employees with concerns can submit an intake to our referral program to be connected with an experienced whistleblower attorney.
NWC is fighting for tech industry whistleblowers and will continue to raise awareness about the impacts of Elon Musk’s and Tesla’s concerning comments and conduct. Please donate today to support NWC’s efforts on behalf of Tesla whistleblowers and consider sharing this article. Elon Musk may be the richest man in the world, but with your support we support the brave whistleblowers who are not afraid of his bullying or shaming on social media.
Note: This Sunday Read has been modified to add the stories of Karl Hansen and Martin Tripp.