Former Tesla Employee Who Was Called N-Word by Supervisors Wins $1 Million

Tesla’s plant in Fremont, Calif. The company has paid more than $1 million to a Black former employee who won a ruling after alleging that supervisors called him the “N-word” (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

Tesla Inc. has paid more than $1 million to a Black former employee who won a ruling that the company failed to stop his supervisors from calling him the “N-word” at the electric-car maker’s Northern California plant.

The rare discrimination award by an arbitrator to Melvin Berry, which followed a closed-door proceeding, caps years of complaints from Black workers that Tesla turned a blind eye to the commonplace use of racial slurs on the assembly line and was slow to clean up graffiti with swastikas and other hate symbols scrawled in common areas. It ends a years-long and emotionally grueling fight launched by Berry, who was hired by the company as a materials handler in 2015 and quit less than 18 months later.

Arbitration typically keeps disputes between employees and companies secret, but court filings reveal that the arbitrator found Berry’s allegations more credible than Tesla’s denials, though she called it a “difficult” case after hearing from witnesses on both sides. Berry claimed that when he confronted a supervisor for calling him the “N-word,” he was forced to work longer hours and push a heavier cart.

“I hope the world knows that an arbitrator found Tesla treats its employees like this,” Berry, 47, told Bloomberg News in a phone interview Wednesday. He said he’s now taking time off to focus on his mental health as he still hasn’t “gotten over the healing process.”

“Case law is clear that one instance of a supervisor directing the N-word at a subordinate is sufficient to constitute severe harassment,” arbitrator Elaine Rushing said in her May 12 ruling, which hasn’t been previously reported. Rushing, a former judge in Sonoma County Superior Court for almost two decades, said she found Tesla liable for harassment because it was perpetrated by Berry’s supervisors.

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