Former Tesla worker speaks out after winning $137 million lawsuit

Owen Diaz was hired as an elevator operator at Tesla's factory in Fremont.

October 6, 2021, 2:33 PM

Owen Diaz, the former Tesla employee who sued the electric car company over allegations of racism, is opening up about his experience.

“[Tesla] decided not to follow through, they decided to kill investigations,” Diaz said on "Good Morning America" Wednesday. “Tesla, as a company, as a whole, needs to wake up. You know you can't keep treating workers like this.”

Diaz was hired as a contract elevator operator at Tesla's factory in Fremont, California. He worked there from June 2015 to July 2016. Diaz claimed fellow workers called him the "n-word,” was told to "go back to Africa” and saw racist and derogatory images in the factory's bathroom stalls.

Diaz said he complained to Tesla about his treatment but his supervisors failed to stop the abuse. He left the company four years ago, filing a lawsuit in October 2017 that claimed "Tesla's progressive image was a facade papering over its regressive, demeaning treatment of African-American employees."

Now, after receiving one of the largest awards in a racial harassment case in the history of the United States, Diaz said he feels justice was served. A San Francisco federal jury awarded him $137 million on Monday.

“It’s God’s justice that this happened, you know, and allowed me to talk for people who can't talk for themselves. A lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck to paycheck. They have to take choose to either take the abuse that these billion-dollar companies are putting out or feed their families,” Diaz said.

Mr. Diaz’s attorney, Lawrence Organ of the California Civil Rights Law Group, spoke to "Good Morning America" as well and said the verdict "makes Tesla take notice of these horrid conditions, and hopefully it will make them change and make other companies change and realize, racist conduct has no place in the workplace."

Owen Diaz, right, with his son, Demetric, at their home in Vallejo, Calif., Sept. 10, 2018.
Ryan Christopher Jones/The New York Times via Redux Pictures, FILE

In an internal email to employees, Valerie Capers Workman, Tesla's vice president of people, said Tesla of 2015 and 2016 "is not the same as the Tesla of today." Tesla published Workman's email in a blog post on its website following the verdict.

"While we strongly believe that these facts don't justify the verdict reached by the jury in San Francisco, we do recognize that in 2015 and 2016, we were not perfect. We're still not perfect. But we have come a long way from 5 years ago," Workman said in her email.

Tesla had responded to Diaz's complaints of harassment by firing two contractors and suspending a third contractor, according to Workman.

This is not the first time Tesla faced claims of a hostile, racist work environment. The company had to contend in court with similar lawsuits, including a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed in 2017 in Alameda County Superior Court. That case is still pending.

In August, a court ruled that Tesla must pay a million-dollar fine in the case of Melvin Berry, a former black employee, who was allegedly subjected for years to racial insults from his colleagues. Tesla has denied all claims.

Tesla employees are bound by mandatory arbitration contracts when they start their jobs, preventing them from suing the company. Diaz was a contract worker.

Diaz said he knows that his case is “bigger than him.”

"This is not really about me. This is about a verdict that a jury made to let Tesla know that they're being put on notice to clean up their factories," he said.

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