Some Tesla factory employees still had to work after the production shutdown

Local officials have confirmed that Tesla stopped making electric cars in California on Monday, March 23rd, in compliance with a shelter-in-place order brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic. But dozens of workers had to report to the company’s automotive factory to finish processing the final batches of cars this week, according to an email to some of those workers obtained by The Verge and the account of one of the factory’s employees.

This comes as Tesla confirmed the first two cases of COVID-19 among its office workforce on Thursday, according to another email that was viewed by The Verge after it was first reported by Business Insider and Electrek. Tesla is also making its first workforce cuts during the pandemic, temporarily laying off some employees in Norway, an electric vehicle stronghold.

The email to factory employees, sent ahead of the production shutdown, informed some of these “end of line” workers that they’d have to keep reporting to the automotive plant to run quality checks, make fixes, and charge and prep the cars for delivery. Tesla management, they were told, essentially wanted all departments that work on a car after it comes off the production line to keep reporting to the factory until the cars were out for delivery. The current employee, who was granted anonymity because they feared retribution, confirmed many of these workers reported to the factory throughout this week.

A spokesperson for the local police department told The Verge that it “conducted a visit and inspected Tesla [on Wednesday] and found their current level of operation to be in compliance” with the shelter-in-place order. “Their vehicle assembly line has stopped and they have only a small number of employees in the factory. They have also gone to great lengths to implement social distancing measures,” they said.

Factory workers were also told in the email that they wouldn’t receive the paid leave Tesla has promised until their own departments finally shut down. Any workers who did not feel well or felt uncomfortable coming to work were encouraged to use accrued paid time off or take unpaid leave, which was the company’s guidance before the shutdown was announced last week.

The current factory worker said Tesla’s end of line process usually takes a few hours for a car with “moderate issues.” But they also said the company finished production on Monday with an increased number of cars considered to be “work in progress,” which, therefore, required more end of line work.

Cars coming off the production lines of legacy automakers usually complete end of line checks in a matter of minutes, according to Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Navigant Research. Tesla did not respond to questions about the end of line workers or the employees who tested positive for COVID-19.

Tesla had kept the Fremont, California factory open last week, even after the shelter-in-place order took effect in the San Francisco Bay Area on March 17th. The company had just started delivering the Model Y, its fifth electric car, and was in the middle of a typical end-of-quarter push to make and deliver as many cars as possible.

At the same time that CEO Elon Musk was underplaying the threat of the coronavirus, almost every other major automaker suspended production operations in the United States following a deal between Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, and the United Auto Workers union. Tesla, which is the biggest automaker in the US without a unionized workforce, did tell some of its white-collar workers to work remotely if possible last week while the factory remained open.

The company ultimately announced on March 19th that it would comply with the Bay Area order and shut down operations at the California factory where the Model 3, Model S, Model X, and now the Model Y are assembled, and it agreed to reduce the workforce there to “basic operations” like processing payroll. Tesla announced that same day that it would also pause operations at its solar panel factory in New York, but that the Gigafactory in Nevada would keep operating, despite the governor asking all nonessential businesses to close.

It’s currently unclear which office the two infected Tesla employees work in. Laurie Shelby, who runs Tesla’s environmental, health, and safety division, said in the email that the two employees “had been working from home for nearly two weeks” before they tested positive for COVID-19. Shelby said the employees did not show symptoms of the disease while they were in the office and that their “direct coworkers, who were already working from home for nearly two weeks as well, were immediately notified so they can quarantine and watch for symptoms.” Both employees are “quarantined at home and recovering well,” Shelby wrote.

Tesla briefly shut down its newest factory in China earlier this year as part of a government-mandated effort to suppress the spread of the virus. But Musk tweeted on Wednesday that he plans to reopen the New York factory “as soon as humanly possible” as Tesla joins in the effort to help increase the production of ventilators, which are crucial to treating the worst symptoms of COVID-19.

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