Workers at a child daycare and school for the Elon Musk–led rocket manufacturer SpaceX say their health and safety are being placed at risk by a company that is still asking its employees to come to the office despite the coronavirus pandemic.
While the governor of California ordered all nonessential businesses to close and advised residents to stay home, Hawthorne, California–based SpaceX has remained open for more than 5,000 employees, citing its role as a government contractor. Because of this, the services supporting SpaceX’s campus, including on-campus preschool Xplor Education, have stayed in operation, leading some of its teachers and staff to worry that they’re being unnecessarily exposed to possible infection.
On Monday, according to documents seen by BuzzFeed News, an email was sent out to school employees and parents, notifying them that a parent had been tested over the weekend for the novel coronavirus after coming down with symptoms. That notice inspired internal questions and a petition asking the school to close that’s been signed by more than half of Xplor’s active staff, many of whom spend hours every day with infants and toddlers.
It's unclear whether the Xplor parent and SpaceX employee tested positive or negative for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus strain. Xplor did not send out any further updates about the test, and SpaceX did not respond to a detailed list of questions from BuzzFeed News.
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SpaceX’s hard-charging culture and Musk’s statements casting doubt on the disease’s spread, have inspired widespread concern among those at the company, leading some employees to wonder if the NASA contractor is prioritizing the financial health of the company over the safety of its workers, four people close to the company told BuzzFeed News. That unease has been compounded by poor communication and a perceived failure to take proper precautions to address the threat of the coronavirus.
“I have personally witnessed multiple employees that are showing signs of the coronavirus and because of the position of SpaceX management, those employees continue to work in a facility with around 5,000 employees and a childcare facility,” said one Xplor employee, who spoke to BuzzFeed News anonymously for fear of losing their job. “Not only is SpaceX putting direct employees in danger, but the children and employees of the school on campus are also put at risk all because of one man’s ignorance.”
So far, Musk, who leads SpaceX and electric car manufacturer Tesla, has downplayed what the World Health Organization declared a pandemic nine days ago. Earlier this month, the billionaire tweeted that “the coronavirus panic is dumb.” Last week, in a companywide email to SpaceX employees, he claimed workers were more likely to die in a car accident than from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. And while Musk has suggested he could use his companies’ resources to build ventilators to respond to the crisis, he downplayed the predicted severity of the outbreak Thursday and tweeted misinformation about who is affected by the virus.
“Small children have another name,” Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University's School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News. “Viral vectors. Close down.”
“Small children have another name. Viral vectors. Close down.”
Sources at SpaceX’s offices in Hawthorne and Redmond, Washington, said that employees are frustrated with the decision-making and lack of communication from the human resources department. In both locations, rumors have swirled about employees exposed to the coronavirus in the absence of top-down information, and while some employees have been given permission to work from home, there has been no companywide directive. Some employees lack the ability to work from home because of their physical jobs in manufacturing, production, and testing.
In at least one case, workers in the Redmond office had to find out through word of mouth that a colleague’s partner had tested positive for the coronavirus and that the SpaceX employee would be isolating themselves, according to two sources. Those same people said that a company vice president told Seattle employees that, despite their health concerns, he could not shut the office because of the position Musk had taken on the coronavirus on his public Twitter account.
Last week, SpaceX employees in Redmond who had been scheduled to travel to Hawthorne, canceled their flights on their own accord, for fear of potentially spreading the disease to headquarters. They conducted their meetings over a video conference call instead.
On Thursday night, employees were told Xplor would remain open, even though California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered 40 million Californians to stay at home, a directive that also requires nonessential businesses to close. That order, however, allows for essential services, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and government contractors, including SpaceX, to continue operating.
At Xplor, employees said that SpaceX’s demanding work culture pressured the school’s director to keep the onsite daycare and school, which handles children ranging from 8 weeks to 6 years old, open even though area schools had already closed. Over the last two weeks, staffers said they have seen visibly sick parents who showed signs of sweats and coughing fits when dropping off their children. Fever, cough, and shortness of breath are all symptoms of COVID-19 as well as many other ailments, and the general lack of testing across the country has created a climate of fear and uncertainty at the school.
“The morale is really low,” said one employee at Xplor’s preschool, Discovery. “People are afraid and there’s a lot of anxiety. A couple girls said they had anxiety attacks before they came to work.”
In a Sunday email sent to a school staff of about 20, Xplor CEO Greg Marick said that all employees were required to continue to come into work unless they were feeling sick. He said that all staff would have an additional 80 sick hours in 2020, which were only to be used if they or a family member tested positive for COVID-19, or if they have a child whose school or daycare center closed.
“I am profoundly appreciative of your commitment to Discovery, but I recognize these are uncertain times,” Marick wrote in the email, which was shared with BuzzFeed News.
One employee said that Marick manipulated his staff to come to school, which typically cares for around 80 infants and kids, by suggesting they “think of the children” and suggesting that teachers are at a low risk of infection because of the school’s supposed safety precautions. “We obviously love children, but we should not have to choose between our health and safety and caring for children,” they said.
Beyond his comments, Marick seemed to contradict himself on his personal Facebook page. Within the last week, the Xplor leader wrote in a post shared with BuzzFeed News, “I’m convinced — the best way out of this is a national 15-day lockdown. Then emerge from our homes on Day 16 and start rebuilding. Isolate the virus and control the damage.”
When asked on a call about his handling of the situation and the differences in his private Facebook post and his pronouncements to employees, Marick declined to comment.
On Monday evening, Marick sent an email to staff and Xplor parents informing them that a SpaceX employee, whose child attended the school, was tested for COVID-19 over the weekend after falling ill. While the child had not been at the daycare since Thursday, Marick asked staff to take precautionary health measures — like cleaning doorknobs and iPads, moving check-in iPads further apart “to support social distancing,” and removing a bowl of mandarin oranges at the front desk — and informed recipients that they would be updated on the results of the test. Staff have still not been notified, sources said.
Caplan, the NYU professor, said that we’re entering a crucial period where social isolation is very important, and people should avoid going into an office of any kind.
“Unless you’re delivering health care, making vaccines, providing food, and food delivery, or engaged in some critical national security function, you should not be at work,” Caplan said.
“Unless you’re delivering health care, making vaccines, providing food, and food delivery, or engaged in some critical national security function, you should not be at work.”
The concern among teachers and staff manifested itself in a petition sent to Marick on Wednesday evening that stated the school “should not have to wait for one of our own to fall ill in order to take the necessary steps or precautions.” The letter, which was signed by more than half of Xplor’s active staff, emphasized that public schools in the area had already closed and asked for a full investigation into an “allegation of a positive case of COVID-19 in the SpaceX facility,” separate of the symptomatic parent who had been tested.
“It is important to have full transparency on this, as it is severely irresponsible if it is not being properly reported or disclosed by such a large company,” the petition read. The note went on to state the employees should still be paid if the school was closed without having to forfeit paid time off, and advocated for policies including the checking of children’s temperatures at drop-off and preventing parents from entering classrooms.
Thus far, there has been no reaction from Xplor management. While numbers at the school are much lower this week because SpaceX began allowing some employees to work from home, teachers are still being told to come to school. On Wednesday, one teacher fell ill but had to wait for more than two hours before a substitute could replace her before she could head home, according to a source.
Musk’s public comments have also not sat well with those who work at SpaceX’s headquarters. On Thursday, the billionaire tweeted that children were “essentially immune” to the novel coronavirus, despite information from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control that confirmed that children could be infected and spread the disease, sometimes with minimal to no symptoms. Other research has shown that infants in China have been highly susceptible to infection.
In another tweet, Musk predicted that the US would see no new cases of COVID-19 by the end of April. That came on the same day that Gov. Newsom announced California was projecting that 56% of its population — or 25.5 million people — would contract the coronavirus in the next eight weeks.
“I just felt like it went in line with the way he’s been talking about the coronavirus in general,” said one Xplor employee, when asked about Musk’s tweets. “He’s just speaking out of complete ignorance. It’s not based in any scientific thought. It’s just nonsense.”