Update: On March 19, Tesla announced it would close production at its Fremont, California car assembly plant and Buffalo, New York solar panel plant. Tesla employees will receive normal pay through Monday before going on paid leave.
Tesla Motors is butting heads with the local government of Alameda county over measures intended to curtail the spread of COVID-19. On March 16, health officers representing six counties, including those which contain San Francisco and Fremont, California, issued what’s called a “shelter-in-place” order for residents of the area. The order requires that all non-essential businesses cease activities at facilities in the county—facilities like Tesla Motors’s Fremont factory, its only auto assembly plant in the United States. The order was set to go into effect at midnight and apply to work scheduled for March 17.
But according to Bloomberg News, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk sent an email to employees after the order was issued that downplayed the risk of the virus. Musk said that employees who “feel the slightest bit ill or even uncomfortable” shouldn’t feel “obligated to come to work,” but did not include any guidance on whether or not employees who did would be compensated.
“I will personally be at work, but that’s just me,” wrote Musk. The CEO and futurist has been blasé about the risks posed by the virus. In a tweet posted March 6, Musk was characteristically blunt: “The coronavirus panic is dumb,” he wrote. Ten days later, he elaborated, saying that the “danger of panic” was greater than the danger posed by the COVID-19 virus.
Another internal email from Tesla’s chief of North American HR—this one acquired by Wired—said that, for the purposes of the health order, Tesla Motors constituted an “essential” business and is therefore exempt. The Alameda county sheriff’s office publicly disputed that, tweeting, “Tesla is not an essential business as defined in the Alameda County Health Order.”
The order lists “essential businesses” by sector, including healthcare, education, grocery, media, service providers like electricians and plumbers, laundromats, logistics companies, and childcare facilities, among others. It also exempts “gas stations and auto-supply, auto-repair, and related facilities,” but it’s unclear if Tesla is claiming that it belongs to that category. According to Wired, Tesla’s head of HR cited the Department of Homeland Security’s description of U.S. manufacturing as a “critical sector” to explain Tesla’s exception to the rule.
The shut-down order comes at an awkward time for Tesla, a dramatically ascendant figure in the changing automotive landscape. The beginning of 2020 saw Tesla’s stock price top Boeing’s amid a huge expansion and an ahead-of-schedule March 16 start for Model Y deliveries, but the impact of the coronavirus is now set to impact both of Tesla’s vehicle-producing plants. Tesla’s factory in Shanghai was also forced to suspend production at the end of January before reopening in early February.
Representatives from Tesla did not respond to requests for comment at press time.