A black former supervisor at a California Tesla factory sued the electric vehicle maker in state court, claiming that resentful white subordinate threw a tool at her and repeatedly called her the N-word, and that Tesla fired her for speaking up.
Kaylen Sherrel Barker filed suit Tuesday, the first day of Black History Month, in Alameda County Superior Court. She is represented in the Fair Employment and Housing Act suit by a legal team that includes J. Bernard Alexander III – the same lawyer who represented another Black Tesla worker who won a $137 million race bias verdict at trial in October.
“As plaintiff discovered, being a Black worker at Tesla’s renowned California factory, is to be forced to step back in time and suffer painful abuses reminiscent of the Jim Crow Era,” Barker says in her complaint, which was provided to Law360 by her lawyers.
She is bringing state law claims, including race and sexual orientation discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, against Tesla, a staffing company and unnamed individuals.
Barker, who is 25 years old and gay, worked grinding and inspecting brake parts at Tesla’s factory in Lathrop, California, the complaint says, about 75 miles east of San Francisco.
After being placed by a staffing company and starting work in February 2021, Baker was promoted to line lead by April, supervising nearly a dozen co-workers, according to complaint. But soon after, she began facing increasing levels of racist harassment from one of the white line workers she supervised, who said the company shouldn’t have promoted a Black employee over her, she alleges.
The white co-worker asked if Barker picked cotton in her Arkansas hometown and said Barker “didn’t know anything” because she was Black, the suit says. She also claimed that her parents had owned slaves and that “no Caucasian is supposed to work under a black person,” according to the suit.
Though Barker repeatedly reported the white co-worker to her supervisors and human resources, they failed to act, according to the complaint. The white co-worker began calling her the N-word on a regular basis, the suit says.
On Sept. 9, 2021, in her capacity as a line lead, Barker told the white co-worker that she was working too close to a machine, which was a safety issue, according to the suit. The co-worker "responded by calling plaintiff a "stupid, dumb [N-word] bitch and threw a hot tool at plaintiff, hitting her right thigh and creating a bruise," according to the suit.
This time, when Barker reported the co-worker, Tesla fired her, she says. But two weeks later, it had rehired her and assigned her to a different supervisor, according to the suit.
Then the company stopped sending Barker her paychecks — it still owes her several, she says. When she asked about it, she was told she was "under investigation" because she kept coming to work after the incident, according to the suit. Tesla said she'd been suspended, though Barker alleged she had no idea.
Tesla human resources also started calling Barker in almost every day and telling her to "sign a document falsely confessing to being insubordinate," according to the complaint. When Barker would not sign, she was sent home; this happened regularly until the end of October, at which point she was finally fired, she says.
When she tried to complain about her treatment via email, Barker was rebuffed by human resources, which told her things like "email is down," she says. At one point she sent a letter by certified mail, and the company said she wasn't an employee, according to the complaint.
Representatives for Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
"My experience (at Tesla) eerily reflected a legalized system of Jim Crow," Barker said in a comment provided by her lawyers Tuesday. "I am not a third-class citizen simply because I'm a Black lesbian woman."
In an email Wednesday, Alexander referenced Tesla's response to the $137 million verdict for worker Owen Diaz, saying that Tesla human resources had announced it had "new protocols" to protect workers against race-based harassment.
"Ms. Barker's case shows that it was occurring before, during and continues to occur after the Diaz trial," he said. "Tesla factories are a cesspool of racist conduct. And Tesla continues to allow it to fester unchecked, rather than ridding the workplace of racial and other forms of harassment."