Tesla fires female engineer who alleged sexual harassment

Lawyer for AJ Vandermeyden says termination was retaliatory after she took lawsuit public, accusing the company of discrimination

A female engineer at Tesla who accused the car manufacturer of ignoring her complaints of sexual harassment and paying her less than her male counterparts has been fired in what her lawyer alleges was an act of retaliation.



AJ Vandermeyden, who went public with her discrimination lawsuit against Elon Musk’s car company in an interview with the Guardian in February, was dismissed from the company this week.

Vandermeyden had claimed she was taunted and catcalled by male employees and that Tesla failed to address her complaints about the harassment, unequal pay and discrimination. “It’s shocking in this day and age that this is still a fight we have to have,” she said at the time.

In a statement to the Guardian, Tesla confirmed the company had fired Vandermeyden, saying it had thoroughly investigated the employee’s allegations with the help of a “a neutral, third-party expert” and concluded her complaints were unmerited.

“Despite repeatedly receiving special treatment at the expense of others, Ms Vandermeyden nonetheless chose to pursue a miscarriage of justice by suing Tesla and falsely attacking our company in the press,” a Tesla spokesperson said. “After we carefully considered the facts on multiple occasions and were absolutely convinced that Ms Vandermeyden’s claims were illegitimate, we had no choice but to end her employment at Tesla.”

“This was absolutely shocking for AJ. She is devastated,” Therese Lawless, Vandermeyden’s attorney, said by phone. “She brought the lawsuit in an attempt to make the workplace at Tesla more equitable and fair and to have Tesla comply with the law.”

Asked about Tesla’s justification for the firing, Lawless said: “They’ve just proven our case. It’s clear retaliation.” She added: “Somebody is trying to instill in employees that when they speak out about matters they are legally allowed to speak out about, they too will be fired.”

Vandermeyden’s firing is likely to reignite debate over employment standards in Silicon Valley, where startups and major tech corporations are grappling with complaints of systemic wage disparities, gender discrimination and sexual misconduct.

An account of alleged sexism at Uber went viral earlier this year, fueling debate about harassment in the industry, while a recent federal lawsuit against Google has placed a spotlight on concerns about tech firms underpaying women.

Lawless, who represented the former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao in her high-profile discrimination lawsuit, against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, said she intended to file a formal retaliation complaint on behalf of Vandermeyden.

“It is illegal in the state of California for an employer to retaliate against an employee who asserts her rights, including her rights to receive equal pay as her male colleagues.”

Vandermeyden, who started working at Tesla in 2013, claims in her lawsuit that she was paid less than male engineers whose work she directly took over as a manufacturing engineer in the general assembly department.

Her complaint further alleged that she raised issues about flaws in the quality testing of cars that her supervisors and male engineers had missed. Although she came up with a solution, men were granted positions over her, she alleged. The complaint said that she and other female engineers were denied promotions despite the fact that they were “equally or more qualified” than the men.

Vandermeyden also alleged that she experienced “unwelcome and pervasive harassment by men on the factory floor including but not limited to inappropriate language, whistling, and catcalls”.
 AJ Vandermeyden sued Tesla, alleging discrimination and harassment, among other concerns.
Further, the lawsuit accused Tesla of retaliating against her for speaking up. Management allegedly told her that in order to advance her position, she would need to achieve a performance standard in the factory that was not expected of male engineers and was unattainable.

Although she had positive performance evaluations, she felt she had to transfer out of general assembly to the purchasing department, according to the lawsuit, which also said that Tesla retaliated against her for being a “whistleblower”.

Tesla has continued to strongly refute Vandermeyden’s claims. A spokesperson said the company had “conducted a thorough internal investigation” and “extensively re-reviewed all the facts”, repeatedly concluding that her allegations were false.

Tesla added that Vandermeyden had been granted numerous positions “over other more qualified candidates” and was “given special treatment and opportunities for advancement that were unwarranted based on her qualifications”.

“The termination was based on Ms Vandermeyden behaving in what the evidence indicates is a fundamentally false and misleading manner, not as a result of retaliation for the lawsuit,” the spokesperson added. “It is impossible to trust anyone after they have behaved in such a manner and therefore continued employment is also impossible.”

The Vandermeyden case is one of several labor issues that have dogged Tesla, which is facing growing scrutiny over its practices in California.

Earlier this month, the Guardian published an investigation into working conditions at Tesla’s “factory of the future” in Fremont, California, where several factory workers complained about their treatment at the plant.

Incident reports revealed that ambulances have been called more than 100 times since 2014 for workers experiencing fainting spells, seizures, dizziness, abnormal breathing and chest pains. A recent report from a worker safety organization found that Tesla workers were injured at a rate 31% higher than the industry average in 2015.

The company has said it has significantly improved safety standards in recent months at the factory, and Musk told the Guardian he cared deeply about the health and wellbeing of his employees.
Vandermeyden, in her interview with the Guardian in February, emphasized that she believed Tesla was a “revolutionary and innovative company” and said she took out a hefty loan to buy the cheapest version of the Model S car.

“Until somebody stands up, nothing is going to change,” she added. “I’m an advocate of Tesla. I really do believe they are doing great things. That said, I can’t turn a blind eye if there’s something fundamentally wrong going on.”

At the time, Vandermeyden said she was hopeful her lawsuit and public comments would not end her career at the company. But she expressed some concern that her decision to speak out could result in retaliation. “Half the time when I walk into work,” she said, “I wonder if my badge is going to work.”


guardian

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