Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc., unveils the company’s new products in Hawthorne, Calif. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, was originally a high-profile coronavirus doubter. “The coronavirus panic is dumb,” he tweeted March 6, when there were just 282 confirmed cases in the United States. 

Still, Tesla eventually promised to shut down its car factory in Fremont, California, on March 23 under pressure from local authorities, which had issued an order for all nonessential businesses to stop operating a week earlier. 

That’s why some Tesla workers were surprised to get a text message March 22 telling them their jobs – fixing cars that had come off the production line with paint mistakes – were still necessary. They would have to report for work or use their paid time off until the cars were finished, they were told.

“I know it sucks, but we have to support our scheduled days,” a supervisor texted March 22, notifying workers that they would have to work after the shutdown. 

Workers still were getting called in this past weekend. Their jobs had been “deemed essential,” a supervisor texted March 26. 

“I understand everyone’s concerns and position we have all been placed in,” the text said. “We have been fighting for you guys unfortunately now it’s out of our hands and it’s HR call.”

Two workers who received the text messages told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that they were upset about being put at risk of contracting COVID-19.

“It’s wrong,” said one paint department worker, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job. “How desperate are they that those cars are worth so many people’s lives?”

Another paint department employee told Reveal that he went to work after the shutdown, fixing paint defects to get new Model Y SUVs ready for customers.

“Don’t say it’s essential,” said the employee, who also requested anonymity. “Maybe it’s essential for you guys to keep the stock up, but it’s not essential for our lives.”

“It’s pretty shady,” he added, “that they would ask people that were working there for so many years to come in and risk their health and their family’s health just so they can make their numbers.”

Tesla didn’t respond to Reveal’s questions. The Verge first reported the fact that Tesla workers were called into work after the shutdown.  

The Alameda County order to shut down nonessential businesses allows companies to maintain “minimum basic operations,” and it’s up to each company to determine what’s necessary, said Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Ray Kelly.

The Fremont Police Department inspected the factory March 25 and confirmed that production had been shut down, said spokesperson Geneva Bosques.

“We were able to visually verify that they’re down to a very small number of people working inside the facility, and we felt comfortable after our inspection,” Bosques said. “We can definitely understand how employees are feeling right now.”

Musk, meanwhile, recently said on Twitter that Tesla’s factory in Buffalo, New York, would open “as soon as humanly possible” to manufacture ventilators. While he’s been lauded for donating urgently needed ventilators to California and New York, he’s also faced criticism for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.

Will Evans can be reached at wevans@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @willcir.

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Will Evans was a senior reporter and producer for Reveal, covering labor and tech. His reporting prompted government investigations, legislation, reforms and prosecutions. A series on working conditions at Amazon warehouses was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and won a Gerald Loeb Award. His work has also won multiple Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards, including for a series on safety problems at Tesla. Other investigations exposed secret spying at Uber, illegal discrimination in the temp industry and rampant fraud in California's drug rehab system for the poor. Prior to joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2005, Evans was a reporter at The Sacramento Bee.