Ex-Tesla worker testifies that race bias made him 'feel less than a man'

FILE PHOTO: Motorists drive past Tesla's primary vehicle factory in Fremont, California, U.S. May 12, 2020. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

(Reuters) -A Black former elevator operator at Tesla Inc's flagship California assembly plant became emotional testifying at a trial on Wednesday about the psychological toll exacted on him by a torrent of racial slurs, threats and other workplace incidents.

The plaintiff, Owen Diaz, struggled to speak at times during his testimony, including when he explained how he had recorded Spanish-speaking coworkers and later discovered using a translation website that they were calling him racial slurs.

Diaz said that racial incidents at the Fremont, California, electric-vehicle factory strained his relationship with his son, who also worked there, and have made it difficult for him to trust people.

“It made me feel less than a man (and) it made me question my worth,” Diaz said. He added: “I was living from paycheck to paycheck and I needed the job.”

At one point, U.S. District Judge William Orrick called a 15-minute recess in order for Diaz to compose himself.

Lawyers for Tesla will complete their cross-examination of Diaz on Thursday.

Alex Spiro, who represents the company, on Wednesday pressed Diaz on why there was no record of him making written complaints to supervisors, such as emails and text messages, about racist conduct.

Diaz said he did not recall whether he complained in writing or only verbally, and in a series of testy exchanges accused Spiro of mischaracterizing his responses to other questions.

The five-day trial on damages comes after a jury in 2021 found Tesla liable for discrimination and ordered the company to pay Diaz $137 million. The trial began on Monday.

Orrick last year agreed with the jury that the EV maker had fostered a hostile work environment but slashed the award to $15 million. Diaz rejected the lower payout and opted for a new trial on damages before a different jury.

Bernard Alexander, a lawyer for Diaz, during opening statements on Monday compared the Fremont plant to a "plantation" where Black workers were targeted for harassment and their complaints were ignored by managers.

Tesla has maintained that it does not tolerate workplace harassment and takes discrimination complaints seriously. Spiro told jurors on Monday that Diaz was exaggerating his claims of emotional distress and there was no evidence warranting a multimillion-dollar award.

Jurors have also heard testimony from five workers and supervisors at the Fremont plant, a Tesla human resources manager and a lawyer who conducts investigations into workplace disputes and served as an expert witness for Diaz.

The lawyer testified that while Tesla had adopted adequate anti-bias policies, the company failed to properly investigate and respond to complaints from Diaz and other Black workers.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New YorkEditing by Matthew Lewis)

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