On Friday morning, Tesla’s US employees received an email from Valerie Workman, the company’s head of North American human resources. She wrote that “Tesla fully supports Juneteenth for any US employee that wants to take the day off to celebrate.”
That was followed by another clarifying email from Tesla’s HR: “This is an unpaid PTO and excused absence.”
Tesla workers were confused by the message. Some were already at work by the time they received the first email; one worker who spoke with BuzzFeed News felt it was “pointless.” The company was recognizing Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the US, and telling workers they either had to take a vacation day or take the day off and not be paid.
With a national awakening to the need for racial justice following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans, corporations have taken different approaches to voice their support. Some have declared “Black lives matter” and committed funds and resources, while others have moved to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday.
Tesla and SpaceX, both helmed by billionaire Elon Musk, have taken a different approach.
“Juneteenth is henceforth considered a US holiday at Tesla & SpaceX,” he tweeted on Friday at 10:06 a.m. in Los Angeles. He followed this up with a reply: “It does require use of a paid-time-off day, which is true of many other holidays.”
Tesla and Musk did not respond to an email request for comment.
Sources provided or confirmed the emails to BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution; they described the messages as performative. Operations continued at Tesla’s Fremont factory, the only US-owned car manufacturing facility in the country that is not unionized, and while workers were given the option to leave, they would not be paid if they did not use a vacation day or paid time off.
The only difference, the sources said, was that employees would not be penalized for not working. Typically, workers with unexcused absences at the factory accumulate penalties when they do not show up for their shifts. With enough penalties, a worker can be fired.
Tesla’s Fremont factory has been back in operation since May, after Musk, a vocal skeptic of the coronavirus pandemic, defied a shelter-in-place order from Alameda County and reopened it amid an outbreak. In defying officials, Musk and Tesla filed a lawsuit against the county, which then gave the company concessions that allowed it to manufacture cars as other local businesses remained shuttered.
Tesla factory workers who previously spoke with BuzzFeed News said that while the company has implemented social distancing and mask policies, they are not being enforced or followed at the facility. There have been confirmed COVID-19 cases at some Tesla locations.
On Friday, some workers were frustrated by the announcement. They were not informed about the company's position on Juneteenth until Friday morning, and some had traveled long distances to arrive for their regularly scheduled shifts only to see the email from Workman.
The Verge also reported that some employees had been planning a Juneteenth rally at the factory for Friday.
One former SpaceX employee, who spoke to BuzzFeed News anonymously, explained that while the company provided a standard set of holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the 4th of July, it also gave employees floating holidays to use at their discretion. That allowed workers to take days off like Good Friday, which is not a company-wide holiday.
Still, the former SpaceX employee said, Musk doesn’t deserve the credit he’s getting on Twitter.
“He’s claiming to give an extra day off and then immediately walked it back as requiring PTO to take off,” he said. “Seems like a totally empty gesture.”