AUSTIN (KXAN) — A local nonprofit said while the beams to Tesla’s over 10 million-square-foot facility were going up, the men and women putting them there were being mistreated.

The Workers Defense Project filed two cases Monday with the U.S. Labor Department over worker pay and training during Giga Texas’ construction over the last two years.

The group said dozens of workers have come to it claiming they didn’t receive pay for work, overtime pay or holiday pay.

Staff attorney Hannah Alexander said the wage theft ranges from a couple thousand to tens of thousands of dollars.

“For a corporation, a hundred, a thousand or 10,000 is nothing. For a community, that is rent, the groceries for the week, the difference between paying the utilities or not,” said Virginia Badillo, a Workers Defense Project board member, during a press conference Tuesday.

That complaint, it said, is being filed with the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.

The group also filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), saying contractors and subcontractors gave some workers fake safety certificates.

“Workers report that when they needed training, they were simply sent PDF files or images of certificates through text or WhatsApp in a matter of days when there’s no conceivable way workers could have even taken the training required,” Alexander said.

These official complaints are targeted at contractors and subcontractors of the Giga Texas construction project, but Workers Defense said Travis County commissioners and Tesla also hold responsibility.

The group said it voiced its concern about possible worker violations while county commissioners were considering the project over two years ago.

“We rang the alarm that without strong health and safety protections and workers’ rights, there was a heightened potential for worker exploitation on the site,” said David Chincanchan, Workers Defense Project policy director.

A spokesperson for Travis County said they take worker safety seriously.

“Worker safety in Travis County is of the utmost importance to the Travis County Commissioners Court. This is why the Commissioners Court includes several worker protections in Economic Development Performance Agreements like the one with Tesla,” the spokesperson said in an email to KXAN.

“The Travis County Commissioners Court is aware that a complaint against Tesla was filed. The Commissioners Court expects all parties to fully cooperate and will await the results of the investigation.“

The spokesperson said they included worker protections in their agreement with Tesla:

  • The company and its affiliates shall implement an Owner Controlled Insurance Plan (OCIP), including workers compensation as applicable, for the construction of the Colorado River Project to cover liability and loss arising from the construction of the project.
  • The company shall ensure that the OCIP includes an assertive accident and injury prevention program that includes provisions for rest breaks to enhance the safety record for the project, and an OCIP 3rd party administrator to monitor all relevant aspects of the construction project and compliance.
  • From the date on which construction began until the date on which all construction workers have left the site, the company’s contractors and subcontractors shall maintain all relevant Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)- approved level 10 and level 30 construction safety training and certification for all of the relevant jobs created and maintained for construction work related to the project.

KXAN asked Travis County what follow-ups were done to ensure Tesla implemented the above worker protections. We are still waiting on that answer.

Workers Defense said that wasn’t enough; it had asked county commissioners to go further by adopting its Better Builder Standards.

“A key piece of that being independent monitoring to ensure that standards would be followed; an on-the-ground monitor, completely separate from the industry, who talks to workers, assures workers are getting paid, and workers are receiving the training they deserve,” Chincanchan explained.

The group said Tesla could have also chosen to adopt those standards as the developers of the Q2 Stadium did.

“At the end of the day, we know that corporations and the owners of projects have the power to ensure better standards on construction sites. [They’re] all workers on the site, regardless of what contractor or subcontractor they work for,” Badillo said.

Frank Fuentes, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association in Austin, did not work on the gigafactory but said most contractors do follow the rules.

“They all remember where they come from. They all remember how dangerous it is to work on the outside on a site. And so, we take good care of our folks,” Fuentes said.

He said federal investigators will now find out whether any of the worker allegations are true.

“If they have a concern, they have every right to write a letter,” he said. “I think ultimately, the department will investigate. And that is … a fair thing to do.”

He said given the size and speed of the gigafactory project, he thinks Tesla did a good job.

“Given the small quantity of folks that are that are filing these complaints, I’m amazingly proud of what Tesla did, and those contractors that were working out there,” Fuentes said.

Workers Defense said according to the workers it was in touch with, there could be hundreds more who have been impacted by alleged violations. The group is urging them to speak up now and join it.

You can read the publicly available complaints here and here.

The group said worker names are redacted because it is concerned about retaliation, and contractor names are being withheld pending the investigations.

KXAN has been reaching out to Tesla for two days for its response to these allegations but hasn’t heard back.

What’s next?

OSHA told KXAN it cannot comment on ongoing investigations, but generally, the agency has six months to complete its inspection.

“No citation may be issued until after the six months following the occurrence of any violation,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to KXAN.

It said the maximum civil penalty for a serious violation is $14,502 and a “willful violation” of OSHA rules holds a maximum civil penalty of $145,027.

Other OSHA violations in the Austin-area

According to OSHA’s online records, other companies faced violations between 2017 and 2022.

The agency found two serious safety violations at Samsung Austin Semiconductor in February 2018 related to wiring and equipment and safeguards for personnel protection.

According to records, the agency fined Samsung about $15,000 for those.

OSHA again found three serious safety violations in September 2018 at Samsung Austin, according to online records.

Those, the filing indicated, were related to fall protection systems, management of highly hazardous chemicals and controlling hazardous energy.

According to records, the agency fined Samsung about $15,000 for those, as well.

KXAN also found H-E-B in Kyle faced a safety violation in September 2018.

OSHA records indicated a bakery worker was cleaning a tortilla machine when she got her hands caught and had to be hospitalized.

The agency fined the company about $7,000 for that incident, according to records.