Tesla Tells Workers It Will Reopen California Factory Despite County Order

Tesla Tells Workers It Will Reopen California Factory Despite County Order


Tesla told employees it would restart its factory in Fremont, Calif., on Friday. But the electric car company’s plans do not comply with a local government order that has not cleared large manufacturers to resume operations.

The company informed employees of the plan in companywide emails sent late Thursday and early Friday. The emails were sent after Gov. Gavin Newsom said manufacturing companies could restart operations even as other businesses were to stay closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The governor also said that local governments could impose tougher restrictions than those in force statewide.

A coalition of health officials from six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area and the city of Berkeley have chosen to maintain to stricter limits in their most recent order, issued on Monday.

That order allowed construction, landscaping, agricultural and other outdoor businesses to resume operations, but restaurants, bars, or other indoor businesses “that do not permit physical distancing or have high-touch equipment” must remain closed.

“Tesla has been informed that they do not meet these criteria and must not reopen,” Neetu Balram, a spokeswoman for Alameda County, which includes Fremont, said in a statement. It was not clear on Friday afternoon whether the plant had restarted.

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Tesla representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

In an email to employees that was reviewed by The New York Times, the head of human resources for North America, Valerie Workman, said the company was in compliance with the local order and said 30 percent of Tesla’s normal staff members would be asked to report to work per shift. She cited Alameda County’s frequently asked questions document, saying that it said “distributed energy resource manufacturing, which includes electric vehicles, solar, and battery storage, is permitted to operate.”

But the document does not mention electric vehicles. “Businesses may also operate to manufacture distributed energy resource components, like solar panels,” it said.

Tesla is heavily dependent on the Fremont plant, which produces almost all of the vehicles it sells. A second plant, in Shanghai, reopened earlier this year after Chinese officials eased restrictions on business activity.

The company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, has been eager to reopen the Fremont plant and has criticized stay-at-home orders that forced the company to cease production in March. At first, Mr. Musk tried to keep the plant open but was forced to shut it down by local officials.

In a conference call last week, the billionaire C.E.O. called stay-at-home orders “fascist.” He has also played down the coronavirus pandemic and said on Twitter as recently as March 19 that based on trends at the time, there would “probably close to zero new cases in the US by end of April.”

Late on Thursday, Mr. Musk told employees the plant would reopen on Friday. “I will be on the line personally helping wherever I can,” he wrote. “However, if you feel uncomfortable coming back to work at this time, please do not feel obligated to do so.”

In her email, Ms. Workman told employees that the company had put in place procedures to protect them from infection. “It is critical that you follow all safety protocols,” she said. “If you do not follow these protocols you will be sent home on unpaid leave. If you are sick or have concerns with safety coming to work, please stay home.”

Workers who choose not to work can use their paid time off or unpaid leave, the email said.

Ms. Balram said the county appreciated Tesla’s “proactive work” to be prepared when an reopening is allowed. But she added that “restoring all activities too soon risks a rapid spike in cases and would jeopardize the relative stability we’ve seen in our health and hospital systems.”

Health officers from the six counties and Berkeley have said they would ease restrictions once the total numbers of cases and hospitalized patients in the region flattens or declines, and when the area has sufficient ability to test for the virus. They also said the region needed to have adequate supplies of protective equipment for health workers, and the ability to investigate all cases and trace contacts among those who have been exposed or infected.

Other automakers are planning to resume production in the coming days. Toyota expects its plants to reopen on Monday. General Motors, Ford Motor and Fiat Chrysler have said they intended to start production May 18, though their parts operations will start as early as Monday.

Niraj Chokshi contributed reporting.

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