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Tesla keeps NorCal factory running through pandemic

Image credit: Reuters

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has continued production at the company’s Fremont factory in Northern California with reduced staff, despite calls to temporarily close non-essential workplaces.

Update: Tesla has confirmed that will temporarily close its Fremont factory, stating that: “continued operations in certain locations has caused challenges for our employees, their families and our suppliers”.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has spread to almost every country and infected more than 225,000 people so far, has forced governments, local authorities, and businesses to take drastic measures to minimise risk of transmission. Several European governments are enforcing strict lockdowns, while many others (including the UK) have strongly advised people to work remotely unless it is absolutely essential for them to be in their workplace.

Tesla’s first large US manufacturing facility (Gigafactory-1) in Reno, Nevada, appears to be able to remain open as it could be considered a part of the supply chain for important energy-grid products, with clarification awaited from the Governor of Nevada.

However, Tesla’s Fremont facility (which is not a 'Gigafactory') has been ordered to suspend operations after failing to comply with a shelter-in-place order that took effect this week and requires millions of people in Northern California to stay home from work unless involved with keeping 'basic operations' running for essential services, such as pharmacies and grocery shops.

In an email sent by Tesla’s North American HR head and acquired by CNN Business, employees were advised that there are “no changes to your normal assignments” and that they should continue coming to work if they are in an “essential function” such as production, service, and deliveries. The email said that Tesla had received conflicting guidance from different levels of government about how to respond to the order.

Musk has faced some criticism regarding his public and private comments about the pandemic, having previously tweeted that: “The coronavirus panic is dumb”.  According to reports, he told Tesla employees in an email that he believed that the harm from the “coronavirus panic” is far more damaging than that of the virus itself. The email said that it was understandable if sick or concerned employees did not want to come into work.

The continued opening of the facility has put Musk at odds with local authorities.

The local sheriff’s office tweeted: “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.”

Ray Kelly, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, told CNN Business that the office had discussed the matter with Tesla and explained that while a small number of employees were permitted to attend work, the company should not attempt to keep its assembly lines running through this stage of the pandemic. He acknowledged that some government definitions made it feasible that car manufacturing could be considered 'critical infrastructure', although the local health orders were very clear.

“They are still producing cars and that is not an essential function of business,” he told CNN Business. He said that about 2,500 of the facility’s 10,000 staff were still showing up to work.

According to reports, Tesla has told employees that they should stay at home if they are ill and that they can “borrow” up to two weeks of additional paid time off, after which they can take unpaid time off without the risk of losing their jobs.

So far, Tesla has not announced any intentions to entirely halt automotive manufacturing, despite Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler having confirmed that they will temporarily stop production.

General Motors has offered to switch over to manufacturing hospital ventilators in its shuttered factory space, with CEO Mary Barra reportedly having assigned people into assessing how this would be achieved. Musk has also informally offered to manufacture ventilators in Tesla factories, in a tweet.

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