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Tesla's Factory Can Stay Open But Manufacturing Cars Would Break The Law, A Sheriff's Office Said

Tesla’s Fremont factory will reduce its workforce from 10,000 to 2,500 workers, according to a spokesperson with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

Last updated on March 18, 2020, at 6:45 p.m. ET

Posted on March 18, 2020, at 4:30 p.m. ET

Courtesy of Tesla

Tesla Motors’ main factory will remain open and will be allowed to operate at limited capacity, despite a previous order from county officials that declared the automobile plant nonessential during an area-wide lockdown over the coronavirus.

Tesla has committed to reducing its workforce from about 10,000 people to about 2,500 at its factory in Fremont, California, an Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday, noting that despite earlier reports of a shutdown, the plant will remain open. On Tuesday, the sheriff's office issued a directive noting that Tesla could “maintain basic minimum operations.”

Sgt. Ray Kelly, a public information officer with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, told BuzzFeed News that the company will operate with one-fourth of its typical workforce, noting that the communications between his office and the company had been “positive.”

“They assured me in a phone call to do a step-down reduction from about 10,000 to 2,500 people,” he said. “The county is very sensitive to what they’re dealing with.”

Kelly later told BuzzFeed News that Tesla had already made the reductions in its workforce but was unclear on the specifics. Tesla, which has about 10,000 total workers at the factory who work on different shifts, did not respond to an email request for comment.

Tesla: @Tesla is not an essential business as defined in the Alameda County Health Order. Tesla can maintain minimum basic operations per the Alameda County Health Order.

On Tuesday, residents of six Bay Area counties were ordered to shelter in place, or remain at home, and many businesses were ordered to close. While “essential” businesses — including grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations — were allowed to remain open, it was initially unclear if Tesla’s factory fell into that category.

The company continued manufacturing operations into Wednesday.

One factory worker who spoke with BuzzFeed News before news of the reduction on Wednesday questioned that decision. They asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job.

“Tesla is like a hotbox,” they said. “Thousands working in that environment — if a few get infected, how easy can it spread?”

While Alameda County deemed Tesla’s factory as “not an essential business” on Tuesday afternoon, its ability to “maintain minimum basic operations” as defined by authorities will allow it to perform activities that “maintain the value of the business’s inventory, ensure security, process payroll and employee benefits,” and other related functions. A spokesperson with the Alameda County Public Health Services office declined to say whether manufacturing cars fit into one of those categories

“Tesla is like a hotbox.”

In a follow-up call on Wednesday afternoon, Kelly told BuzzFeed News that "producing cars" is not considered essential. If the company is found to be manufacturing automobiles, the county would take action to bring them under compliance with the law, he said.

"[Manufacturing cars] violates our health order and we're asking them to go to basic minimum functions," he said.

In a company-wide email sent to Tesla workers Wednesday morning, Valerie Workman, Tesla’s in-house counsel, told employees that the company would be operating with workers from divisions including “production, service, deliveries, testing, and supporting groups.” The email, which was seen by BuzzFeed News and first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, noted that employees who weren’t feeling well should stay home and “use [paid time off].”

“If your PTO balance is low, you can borrow up to 80 hours (2 weeks), after you exhaust your PTO balance,” Workman wrote. Those who've exhausted their paid time off could then take unpaid time off, she later said, noting that “there will be no disciplinary action for attendance based on health or impossibility to come to work.”

Wednesday’s email follows another company-wide message sent by Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Monday, in which he told employees they would be coming into work and “that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds the virus itself.” That email, first reported by Business Insider and the Los Angeles Times and seen by BuzzFeed News, echoed a similar note he sent to employees last week at SpaceX in which he told employees at the rocket manufacturer that they were more likely to die in a car crash than from the coronavirus.

“A lot of rumors are flying around, but, to the best of our knowledge, no one at Tesla (over 56,000 people) has tested positive for COVID-19,” Musk wrote in his Monday email to Tesla workers.

Beyond the factory, an employee at a Tesla service center expressed their dismay with recent communications from the company, noting that they mainly address workers in the Bay Area at the factory or corporate level. The person asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

“Us in the service centers have received very little information or direction,” they said, noting that they’re still showing up to work despite the seeming lack of customers. “We’ve run quite low on cleaning supplies.”

Caroline O'Donovan contributed reporting to this story.

UPDATE

This story has been updated with further comment from the Alameda County Sheriff's Office.

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