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Workers who built Tesla Gigafactory in Austin accuse employers of wage theft, OSHA violations

A general view of the construction site of the Tesla Gigafactory in Austin, Texas, U.S., October 25, 2021. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Brian Snyder
A general view of the construction site of the Tesla Gigafactory in Austin in 2021.

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Construction workers who helped build the Tesla Gigafactory in Austin that finished construction earlier this year accused their employers on Tuesday of violating numerous labor laws, including OSHA violations and wage theft.

Workers accuse their employers of knowingly giving them false OSHA certifications; denying them proper overtime pay, either by providing no additional pay or only offering one or two dollars over their regular pay; withholding pay; and lying to workers that they would receive double pay for working over holidays.

The workers are being represented by the Workers Defense Project (WDP), an Austin-based organization that represents construction workers around the state. The Workers Defense Project is referring a case to the Department of Labor (DOL) Wage and Hour Division, and is filing another complaint with OSHA.

WDP redacted the names of the employers being accused in the documents they released, but it is clear from the documents that at least one of the subcontractors who helped build the Tesla Gigafactory Texas site is being accused.

A representative from WDP did not respond to TPR’s request for comment when asked whether Tesla itself was named in the allegations. A representative from Tesla did not respond to TPR’s request for comment.

The Tesla Gigafactory is a massive, 2,500-acre piece of land in Travis County used to manufacture Tesla vehicles, particularly the Model Y and the future Cybertruck.

Hannah Alexander, an Austin staff attorney with WDP, said dozens of workers at the Tesla site had come to them with complaints over wage theft during the Tuesday press conference where the allegations were announced.

“Now, we have dozens of workers who have come forward to Workers Defense with wage theft allegations,” she said. “Wages owed range from a couple thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. And workers report this wasn’t just happening to them, but to others building the Tesla Gigafactory, potentially hundreds more.”

David Chicanchan, the policy director at WDP, said his organization had opposed the Tesla Gigafactory construction project in Travis County when it was first proposed.

“Workers Defense opposed the project given the history of labor and employment abuses at Tesla sites across the nation,” he said. “We rang the alarm that without strong health and safety protections and workers rights, there was a high potential for worker exploitation on the site.”

Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk at the Texas State Capitol.
Ryan Poppe
Texas Public Radio
Tesla CEO Elon Musk, speaking at the Texas capitol.

The National Labor Relations Board has found that Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk have violated labor law in the past, including unlawfully surveilling workers who discussed unionizing and firing a worker for protected union activity. Tesla has also been sued by a group of 15 former or current Black employees who said they faced harassment and discrimination at a California Tesla plant.

Chicanchan said when it became evident the project would be moving forward, WDP began advocating for workers rights and an independent monitor on the construction site, which was not included in the final deal with Tesla, because of concern that labor rights would be violated, which is now what WDP is accusing employers at the Tesla Gigafactory of doing.

The WDP released redacted documents outlining the case referral to the DOL Wage and Hour Division and the complaint to OSHA. In the OSHA complaint, the WDP is representing a worker who they only identify by his first name, Victor. They say Victor was given two false OSHA certifications, OSHA 10 and OSHA 30.

They are called OSHA 10 and OSHA 30 because they require 10 and 30 hours of safety training, respectively, in order to obtain them. OSHA 10 is needed by all construction workers working on new construction, alterations, or repairs. OSHA 30 is generally recommended for supervisors.

A paragraph from the documents WDP released about the OSHA violation. It reads:
On or about May 13, 2021, Victor began working at the Travis County Tesla Gigafactory. On or
about May 14, 2021, XXXXXXXX, CEO of XXXXXXXX, sent him a fake, digital OSHA 10
certificate without providing any training. Victor had already received OSHA 10 training at another
job. XXXXXXXX told him not to worry about it, that he was going to need this certificate, and that
he should use this certificate instead of his legitimate OSHA 10 card. Victor showed XXXXXXXX,
the safety director for XXXXXXXX, the fake, digital OSHA 10 certificate to begin working on the
Tesla Gigafactory worksite.
Hannah Alexander
Workers Defense Project
A paragraph from WDP's OSHA complaint.

According to the complaint, Victor said he was given a false OSHA 10 certificate by the CEO of one of his two employers — both of which are redacted on the document — and when he told a supervisor he already had a legitimate OSHA 10 card, the supervisor said to use the fake digital version instead.

On one night shift, one of Victor’s supervisors said he wanted to promote Victor to a supervisor role, and Victor asked if he could receive OSHA 30 training in order to get certification. Victor even offered to pay for the training upfront if he would be reimbursed later, according to the complaint. But a few days later, Victor was given a fake OSHA 30 card and was told it had already been paid for.

Victor was then allowed to work in a supervisory role with the OSHA 30 card, the complaint alleges, even though the Workers Defense Project said supervisors would have known he could not have completed the 30 hours of training, considering he was working for them full-time.

The complaint goes further, saying that Victor saw other subcontractors give out numerous fake OSHA certificates to workers, and that he had evidence of the misconduct.

A paragraph from WDP's OSHA complaint. It reads: 

Both the fake OSHA 10 and OSHA 30 certificates stated that the training was conducted by
[REDACTED] and [REDACTED]. Victor has knowledge of other subcontractors at the Travis
County Tesla Gigafactory giving fake OSHA certificates to workers while providing no training,
including other subcontractors of [REDACTED]. Victor knows other workers who received fake
OSHA certificates, including those from other OSHA instructors. Additionally, Victor has evidence
to support these allegations.
Hannah Alexander
Workers Defense Project
A paragraph from WDP's OSHA complaint.

“There was no conceivable way workers could have even taken the training required,” Alexander said.

Greg Casar, the newly elected progressive congressman from Austin, called on the Department of Labor to conduct a full investigation of the allegations in a statement.

“These worker reports of wage theft and safety violations at the Tesla Gigafactory site must be taken seriously and fully investigated,” he said. “Every Texan has the right to a safe workplace. Every Texan has the right to be paid what they are promised.”

Chicanchan said the labor rights violations at the Tesla Gigafactory were indicative of much larger trends in the Texas construction industry.

“These reports from workers are not to be taken lightly,” he said. “The Texas construction industry essentially thrives on worker exploitation, with massive corporations like Tesla that promise economic growth and job creation in exchange for tax cuts and incentives we all pay for … and it’s vulnerable communities and working people who suffer in the end.”

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