Tesla starts new ESL program after Austin group raises language barrier concerns

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — There’s an effort to get more Austinites eligible for jobs at Tesla’s new gigafactory.

Austin Community College District says it’s working with the company and community partners to launch an English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

One local group called the Texas Anti-Poverty Project made it happen.

“As a community, we want — we want the plant, the Tesla company to be successful, but we also want it to provide every opportunity for every resident,” said Ofelia Zapata, who created the group.

She says the group focuses on living wage, housing and education for people in Travis County, and in February, they started hosting community meetings with Tesla and neighbors from the Hispanic and Latino community.

“To see how we could help families get into jobs, because Tesla is not asking for a high school diploma, so we have a lot of people that would fall under that,” Zapata explained.

But in their second meeting, Zapata says a Tesla spokesperson informed them English was still a requirement. KXAN reached out to Tesla for comment, but the company did not respond.

“It was very, very disturbing for us to find out that that was not gonna be — that many of our families would not be able to work there because of the language barrier,” said Zapata, a community activist in the area for 30 years.

That includes Maria Teresa Perez Meza, who has been searching for a job for months.

“Since my husband is working, and if I were to work, we would have two incomes and that would really help us pay the rent,” Meza said in Spanish.

United Way of Greater Austin says an analysis of its calls for help indicate Meza’s Dove Springs neighborhood is within the third top zip code of highest need in our region, with rent and electric being the top needs.

Meza left her fast food job during the pandemic partly because she contracted COVID-19. So, she was excited when Zapata told her about openings at Tesla’s Travis County gigafactory.

“It’s going to open doors for me that I’ve been waiting for,” Meza thought.

But then, she learned about an English language requirement for many of the positions she might otherwise qualify for.

“Oh, well that’s when my hopes went down,” she said.

Just before Wednesday’s monthly meeting with the Texas Anti-Poverty Project, Zapata says a Tesla spokesperson called her, saying they had launched an ESL class with ACC.

KXAN confirmed with ACC, where a spokesperson said the program is “an ESL track for students seeking careers at Tesla,” and it “is in the design and pilot stage now.” They added they’ll share more details in the next few weeks.

Zapata says it’s a great step and will be their focus.

“We will begin doing our part as community to get the word out on the pulpit, announcements at our congregations and let as many people know that they can be signing up for these classes.”

She also hopes Tesla will hire bilingual workers and supervisors who can help translate for native Spanish speakers when needed.

Zapata also wants to make sure accommodations like this are included in future deals with companies that relocate to Austin.

“We would like, both county and city incentive deals, it has to be in black and white, that they will hire people of all languages,” Zapata said.

Meza says the language barrier is also why she couldn’t move up in her fast food job, and she is looking forward to more details about ACC’s new program.

“I’m dying to learn English, because that’s going to open a lot of doors for me in my life,” Meza said.

United Way of Greater Austin says the top needs for Tesla’s factory zip code include child care expenses and rent.

The agency says two of the zip codes that surround the factory — 78721 and 78724 — make the top 20 list of those that need the most help in the Austin region.

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