Tesla worker tests positive for COVID-19 after New York factory reopens

A Tesla employee has tested positive for COVID-19 at the company’s solar panel factory in Buffalo, New York, according to an employee at the factory who spoke to The Verge on the condition of anonymity. It’s the fourth known Tesla employee to test positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus but the first since the company reopened its US factories in May. One employee from Panasonic, which shares space with Tesla at its New York and Nevada factories, also tested positive back in March before the shutdowns.

Tesla quietly reopened the New York facility on May 19th after the state gave the region the green light, according to a new letter to local officials first reported on Friday by Buffalo Business First. But the company is not back at full production capacity and won’t be for a while. In fact, Tesla told those officials that it furloughed 984 “full-time Tesla independent contract workers” in April because of the shutdown, and will move forward with just under 500 full-time employees there for the time being.

The furloughs mean Tesla did not meet a key employment goal the state had tied to the initial funding of the Buffalo factory. Tesla had told state officials that it would exceed the goal of 1,500 jobs shortly before the pandemic gripped the US, but it has now asked the state for another year to meet those hiring goals so it doesn’t have to pay a $41.2 million penalty. (The state says that request is under review.)

Tesla has brought back furloughed workers in California and Nevada after those factories reopened, so it’s unclear why they aren’t bringing back the ones in New York. The company did not respond to multiple emails, phone calls, and texts requesting comment.

News of the new positive test was shared with some workers at the factory last week, according to the employee, who works for Panasonic Solar North America (PSNA). Tesla found out about the positive test during the week of May 18th to May 22nd — the same week that PSNA brought its own employees back, as The Verge first reported, after shutting down operations there in March.

Tesla is not alone in encountering a new COVID-19 case after going back to work. All three Detroit automakers have had workers test positive, as have many companies in the food industry.

While both companies are now back to work at the factory, PSNA won’t be there long. The company announced in February that it was ending its involvement at the Buffalo factory, and told the 400 workers it employs there that they’d only have jobs until the end of May. But thanks to the shutdown, the company will keep some employees on until the end of June to finish filling orders for the solar panel equipment it makes, before fully exiting the factory in September.

As for what’s happening to those jobs, PSNA employees are getting varying levels of support. The current PSNA employee says Tesla’s recruiters told them they could apply to the temp agencies the company uses in hopes of being reassigned to the factory. PSNA has also held virtual information sessions for employees who are willing to relocate to Reno, Nevada, to work for the battery division that shares Tesla’s Gigafactory, according to an email obtained by The Verge.

“Like many companies, they have had a slowdown in hiring but expect to be ramping up in the near future,” a PSNA manager wrote. “Please join us if you are interested in staying with Panasonic and are open to the possibility of relocating to the Reno/Sparks area.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk fought hard to keep Tesla’s California factory open when the local stay-at-home order first went into effect in March, and reopened the plant in violation of that order in May, going so far as to call the orders “fascist.”

The company continues to take steps to make sure the Fremont, California factory remains operational, too. This week, Tesla distributed letters to employees that they’re supposed to show if they get stopped for violating the local curfew related to protests of the killing of George Floyd. The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Verge, says the local police department confirmed Tesla employees can “continue to come to work at Tesla Fremont locations during curfew hours” because they’re performing “essential” work.

But Musk and Tesla have not made similar efforts to keep the Buffalo factory open. Tesla makes equipment for its Superchargers there, but its main products there are its solar panels and “Solar Roof” tiles. Tesla CEO Elon Musk simply said in April that the company was “gaining momentum with Solar Roof before COVID essentially shut us down, both from the ability to install and the ability to get permits.”

Musk also said in March that Tesla might use the Buffalo factory to manufacture ventilators for COVID-19 patients during the shutdown, but the company ultimately focused on sourcing medical equipment from places like China instead.

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