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Nov 3, 2018

Working through the pain at Tesla

Co-produced with PRX Logo

After being called out for hiding worker injuries at its factory, Tesla decides to double down. Plus, a report card on diversity in Silicon Valley.

Credits

This week's show was produced by Katharine Mieszkowski and edited by Taki Telonidis. Reported by Will Evans, Katharine Mieszkowski and Sinduja Rangarajan, and Bloomberg's Aki Ito and Ellen Huet.

Special thanks to everyone who helped make this show possible: Ziva Branstetter, Michael Corey, Eric Sagara, Christina Kim, Professor Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, the team at the Center for Employment Equity and the team at Bloomberg News.

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda who had help from Kaitlin Benz, Katherine Rae Mondo and Cat Schuknecht.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Byard Duncan: Hey, Byard Duncan here. Engagement reporter at Reveal. I want to take you back to just before the 2016 presidential election. Donita Judge is directing voters where to go.

 

Female: Run, run, run, run, run! They're shutting down!

 

Donita Judge: They're shutting it down, run!

 

Male: Finish line, woo!

 

Donita Judge: He's last. That's it.

 

Byard Duncan: She's an attorney who knows voting laws inside and out, and she's the subject of Reveal's short documentary Voting Matters, directed by Dawn Porter.

 

Donita Judge: Columbus fire station. Wait a minute. It's gonna be turning more females away?

 

Byard Duncan: Stationed in Columbus, Ohio, a bellwether state for presidential elections, Donita works to ensure that anyone eligible to vote can vote.

 

Donita Judge: Why couldn't you vote?

 

Female: She said this wasn't the right piece of mail.

 

Female: Not good enough.

 

Donita Judge: Can she cast a provisional ballot?

 

Female: Yes, she may.

 

Female: Yes, she can.

 

Byard Duncan: With midterm elections upon us, and questions about voter suppression in the news, check out Voting Matters. It's airing right now on select PBS stations. Check your local station for listings. Thanks!

 

Female: Support for Reveal comes from Hell and Gone, a new podcast from How Stuff Works, and School of Humans, that follows writer and private investigator Catherine Townsend as she moves back to the Arkansas Ozarks to solve the 2004 murder of 22-year-old college student Rebekah Gould. Every Wednesday the team will explore new leads, knock on new doors, and investigate every angle and every potential suspect, until they crack the cold case and catch Rebekah's killer. Listen, subscribe, and rate on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we're talking about the future and what it takes to build it, as a worker in Silicon Valley. Take Tesla. The car maker's working towards a future of electric vehicles that drive themselves while we can relax and tweet. It's been a crucial year for the 15-year-old company. Tesla's trying to prove that it can mass-produce electric cars and turn a profit, with its new, more affordable Model 3.

 

Male: This is the Tesla Model 3, the car that over 400,000 people have been waiting for.

 

Al Letson: For the first time in two years, the company turned a profit this past quarter, but there have been some stumbles around the way. In September, feds sued CEO Elon Musk for a misleading tweet about taking his company private. Musk had to step down as chair of Tesla's Board of Directors. Musk sent out some tweets about us too. He called the story we did about unsafe working conditions at Tesla BS and propaganda. Then he started attacking the news media in general.

 

Male: I guess in a sense, his rant and ramble here on these tweets is not dissimilar from something we hear from the president quite often, that he feels like-

 

Male: Not at all.

 

Male: ... he's a victim of fake news.

 

Al Letson: Musk even called Reveal just some rich kids in Berkeley who took their political science professor too seriously, but hey, Twitter burns can't stop us. In fact, our reporter Will Evans has continued reporting on safety problems there, and we've got a brand new investigation today. Here's Will.

 

Will Evans: At the end of August, I get this email. It's from someone named Anna Watson. She says she's been working at the health clinic at Tesla's factory in Fremont, California. She's a physician assistant. That's a medical professional who provides care under the supervision of a doctor. The email said she was fired that day. She writes, "I can tell you exactly what they are doing, and how they're risking the safety of patients and increasing the risk of accidents." I jump on it. I drive down to the southern part of Silicon Valley to meet with her at a Starbucks. She's never done this before, so she's nervous, a little shaky.

 

Anna Watson: Okay, go ahead. I'm gonna try just to answer the question.

 

Will Evans: No, no.

 

Anna Watson: I have some-

 

Will Evans: No, no no, just-

 

Anna Watson: ... nervous energy. I'm gonna try to stay focused on what you want to know.

 

Will Evans: No, I want to know it all.

 

Anna is a 49-year-old mother of three. She sounds earnest, like she just has to get this off her chest, and hopes everything will work out okay. She'd only worked at the clinic for a few weeks, but right from the beginning, she saw problems.

 

Anna Watson: At first you see something and you're like, "Okay, this is a little bad, but I'm gonna try to work with it." I still was trying to do what I felt I could for people.

 

Will Evans: Anna has nearly 20 years experience as a physician assistant, examining patients, diagnosing ailments, and prescribing medications. She's treated patients at a steel plant, a petroleum refinery, emergency rooms, even a trauma center. She tells me Tesla workers are not getting the care they need, and that she was a part of it. She says Tesla wanted to bring down the number of injuries that had to be recorded on company logs.

 

Anna Watson: I just decided I can't just keep looking the other way. They have a protocol that is committed to discharging every single patient, really without providing any kind of treatment or intervention that would make it a reportable. The little stuff that I was trying to let go, I just couldn't.

 

Will Evans: All of this was taking place after we reported in April that the electric car maker had a serious problem with employee safety. Anna reached out to me because she saw her first story. Before we go on, let me tell you a little bit about our original investigation, that we co-reported with KQED Public Radio in San Francisco. It started with a bunch of 911 calls from Tesla.

 

Male: They have an associate with a cut on his wrist, and it's pretty deep.

 

Dispatcher: 911.

 

Male: He reported to the guard that his fingers are near falling off.

 

Dispatcher: Where's the patient?

 

Male: We just have an associate up in our medical offices that they want to get to the hospital because he has chest pains and he's vomiting.

 

Will Evans: Tesla had been under fire for having a higher injury rate than the industry average. It said it brought that number down, but we discovered that Tesla wasn't counting all of its injuries as required by law. Former Tesla safety professionals told us their concerns were ignored. We took a tour of the factory. Some dangerous spots on the factory floor weren't marked with yellow, the standard color for safety, because Elon Musk didn't like the color.

 

Male: He wanted the plant to be specific colors. Everything had to be red, gray. It had to be red and gray.

 

Will Evans: We talked with Tesla about what we found, and the company denied it all. Right after our story, California's workplace safety agency, Cal/OSHA, opened an investigation.

 

Male: All of this comes just a couple of days after Reveal published an investigative piece saying that Tesla was in fact under-reporting workplace injuries. Guys, this is yet another headline headache for Tesla.

 

Will Evans: It turns out Cal/OSHA's ability to enforce the law on counting injuries was pretty weak. The agency only had about six months from the date of an injury to fine a company. These kinds of violations usually take time to catch. After we recorded that, California lawmakers passed a bill giving Cal/OSHA more time to investigate. Elon Musk is still talking about what we found, and denying it. Just as we were wrapping up this story and pushing Tesla for answers, Musk went on the offensive during a call with investors and analysts.

 

Elon Musk: We do get these quite unfair accusations. For example, one of them was the fact that we were under-reporting injuries.

 

Female: Correct.

 

Will Evans: Laurie Shelby, Tesla's Vice President for Safety, bragged about the factory's health center. After her first story, they hired a new company to run it.

 

Laurie Shelby: When injuries do occur, we get the absolute best care for our associates. I'm really super happy with the care they're giving, and I think the employees are as well.

 

Will Evans: Anna, who sent me the email about poor treatment for injured workers, joined that new clinic in August. She says she found the company was still more concerned with making its safety record look good than with treating workers. After our coffee on the first day we met, Anna and I went to Chili's for lunch, and she told me about some of the things that were happening on the factory floor.

 

Anna Watson: I had this patient, and a trunk fell on him, and he was in such severe-

 

Will Evans: A car trunk?

 

Anna Watson: Uh-huh (affirmative).

 

Will Evans: She didn't tell me his name, but later on I was able to get a copy of Tesla's official injury list and started contacting injured workers. I got a guy named Stefan Nelson on the phone, and he started telling me about how a trunk fell on his back. I realized this must be the guy Anna was talking about, so I go to see him.

 

What do you got there?

 

Stefan Nelson: These are my documents from when I had to go to the health center.

 

Will Evans: We're sitting in folding chairs outside his girlfriend's house in Oakland, where dogs, cars, and trains are passing by. He's a big athletic guy, 30 years old. He used to play semi pro football, but since getting hurt at Tesla, he gets up slowly and walks a little hunched over to one side. On August 13th, he was working the late shift, putting some caulk on the inside of a Tesla trunk on the production line.

 

Stefan Nelson: Before I knew it, I just felt a heavy object has hit the middle of my back.

 

Will Evans: The hatchback had swung down.

 

Stefan Nelson: I stood up straight for a quick second. Everybody was asking if I was all right. My whole back just locked up. I couldn't walk. I couldn't sit down. I couldn't even stand up straight.

 

Will Evans: He says the pain was unbearable. He had deep red bruises across his back and asked his supervisors to call an ambulance.

 

Stefan Nelson: They were saying that they couldn't because it would cost Tesla a lot of money, so they just had to wait to see what the Tesla doctors said. The first time we asked the Tesla doctor if they could call the ambulance, because they saw how much pain I was in. He said no.

 

Will Evans: Anna said even she, as a trained medical professional, wasn't allowed to call 911. It had to be approved by a doctor, who rarely okayed it. There was something else Anna told me that surprised me.

 

Anna Watson: There was a strong push not to send anybody in an ambulance, to the extent that they would even call a patient a Lyft to have them transferred to the hospital that way.

 

Will Evans: Sending patients to the ER in a Lyft, that means no emergency medical care on the way to the hospital. It's a judgment call by the doctor, but it struck a lot of people in the factory as inhumane.

 

Stefan Nelson: When the security guard called the doctor three times to see if they could call the ambulance, because he was even worried about my pain, and the doctor told him no, but they could call a Lyft to send me to the hospital. I'm like, "What is the point of a Lyft? I can't sit up straight. I can't walk or do anything."

 

Will Evans: What did you think of that? Man, what were you thinking when they said that?

 

Stefan Nelson: What kind of company am I working for? I just felt heartbroken, because it seemed like what they was telling us in the orientation, that Tesla is a company that cares about their employees' safety, it just seemed like it was just a whole reversal.

 

Will Evans: Stefan ends up calling his girlfriend to take him to the emergency room, but his supervisor tells him he has to show up for work the next day, or else he'll get written up. He needs the job, so he tries.

 

Stefan Nelson: I couldn't even get out the car to even get to my department. I tried to let the supervisor know, but it's like they're only caring about one thing, and that's trying to make their goal, which is trying to make sure that all the cars get done, complete.

 

Will Evans: He eventually shuffles in pain over to his department. He obviously can't do the job, so they send him to the health center. Here's where it gets really bizarre. Normally, a worker who's too injured to do their regular job will be given an easier one, so they don't make the injury worse. They get work restrictions, like don't lift more than 20 pounds. Anna says that wasn't allowed.

 

Anna Watson: We were always required to bring the patient back just to their full-duty job.

 

Will Evans: Why? What's the point of that?

 

Anna Watson: Because it keeps the patient off of their records. It keeps the patient off of their books. 100% the goal of the clinic was to keep as many patients off of the books as possible.

 

Will Evans: The health center let Stefan go home for the day, but they tell him he has to come back to work the next day full duty. This happened over and over, until Anna finally sent Stefan to an outside clinic. It's run by the same company that managers the clinic at the factory, but there, at least providers are allowed to give work restrictions. It can take a long time to get an appointment. Stefan was diagnosed with a crushing injury, with bruises and intractable pain. Eight days after his injury, he was finally given work restrictions, don't bend, squat, climb stairs, or lift more than 10 pounds. In the end, Stefan's injury had to go on Tesla's books. Anna says that's another reason the system doesn't make sense. Some workers whose injuries are so serious they'll eventually have to be counted are still denied appropriate care when they're hurting the most.

 

Can you give me a rundown of just the kinds of things that people would be sent back to their jobs with?

 

Anna Watson: It was anything. It was everything. Cuts, lacerations, burns, sprained ankles, back pain, back sprain, shoulder injuries, elbow injuries, wrist injuries from torque guns. If you couldn't walk out, it didn't matter.

 

Will Evans: She says there were other strategies to keep the injury rates down. The clinic would decide that some injuries were not work-related, even before patients were fully evaluated. There was a culture, she says, of just blowing off patients. Some temp workers who were hurt in the factory were simply turned away from the clinic. I talked to a couple of them who said they couldn't get help. Their names didn't show up on Tesla's official list of injuries. I showed Anna the injury list for the time period she was there.

 

Is that an under-count?

 

Anna Watson: By far. By far. It was more than twice that many people daily that should've been considered a serious injury or illness, based on the OSHA standards.

 

Will Evans: They're just not on the list?

 

Anna Watson: No, they're not on the list. Those people wouldn't make it to the list because we never gave them the treatment they deserved.

 

Will Evans: Anna tells me that Tesla was so concerned about keeping its injury rate down that one time company officials told clinic staff to stop prescribing exercises to injured workers, so they wouldn't be counted. By late August, Anna reached her breaking point.

 

Anna Watson: You just can't participate in a system like that, that is not gonna consider treating the patient and doing what's appropriate for the patient.

 

Will Evans: She got into an argument with the clinic owner, and he fired her for not deferring to doctors. That's when she contacted me.

 

Anna Watson: I had to see the workers at Tesla as having absolutely no voice. I do feel extra responsible to try to speak up for what's going on there.

 

Will Evans: At the same time, Anna sent a complaint to Cal/OSHA, the workplace safety agency. She wasn't expecting the response she got. Cal/OSHA sent her a letter saying they folded her complaint into the investigation they started right after our first story ran. They didn't mention they had already closed that investigation two weeks before Anna's complaint, and only fined Tesla $400, for a single violation. Anna got on the phone to insist that they investigate. She says they told her that it wasn't their responsibility, that she should try contacting other agencies.

 

Anna Watson: I don't see how Cal/OSHA is not responsible for that.

 

Will Evans: Cal/OSHA Chief Juliann Sum wouldn't do an interview, but as Anna kept pushing and we started asking questions, a Cal/OSHA spokeswoman said Anna's complaint now is being investigated. We wanted to talk to Tesla too, but they turned down our interview requests.

 

Anna wasn't the only one who said Tesla pressured the clinic to dismiss injuries. I talked to another former clinic employee who said a Tesla official would routinely contact the head doctor about specific workers and lean on the clinic to downplay and disregard the injuries. The former employee requested anonymity for fear of being blackballed in the industry. I asked the head doctor about it.

 

Dr. Basil Besh: It's actually quite the opposite. What Tesla pressures us on is accurate documentation.

 

Will Evans: Dr. Basil Besh owns Access Omnicare, which Tesla hired to run its onsite health center. He had submitted a proposal that he could help lower the company's injury numbers. Tesla set up the call with him and listened in. He says Tesla does act doctors for more clarity on specific cases because they want their injury log to be as accurate as possible.

 

Dr. Basil Besh: They are not in the business of making clinical determinations at the ... We make those clinical determinations, only based on what the patient needs.

 

Will Evans: I asked him about sending injured workers back to the assembly line without any work restrictions.

 

Dr. Basil Besh: There's always gonna be somebody who says, "I shouldn't be working," but if you look objectively at the totality of the medical examination, that's not always the case.

 

Will Evans: I asked him about Stefan, who had a car trunk fall on his back and was sent back to work when he could barely walk. The doctor says can't comment on any specific patient without an okay from that person, but he does say that physician must have determined that there wasn't a safety issue.

 

Dr. Basil Besh: Culturally there were folks in the past who were expecting that any time they come to the clinic, they were taken off of work, and when we told them, "No, we really want to do what's best for you," it's taking some time to get buy-in.

 

Will Evans: I've been told that the on-call doctor often says not to call 911 and instead recommends patients go to the hospital in a Lyft.

 

Dr. Basil Besh: You're talking to the on-call doctor, so that would be correct. We right-size the care.

 

Will Evans: He gives an example of a Tesla worker who had the top of his finger cut off. He said the guy needed to go to the hospital, but not in an ambulance.

 

You do send people to the emergency room in a Lyft?

 

Dr. Basil Besh: We send people to the emergency room by transport if they don't need an ambulance, that's correct. I hope this makes your article. Dr. Besh said not all patients who go to the emergency room are taken by ambulance.

 

Will Evans: I called up a couple of the medical assistants who work the night shift at the clinic, sometimes alone. They saw a lot of the same things Anna was telling me. They said they felt overwhelmed with patients and really uncomfortable with the doctor's orders to call a Lyft, including for a worker whose fingers were broken and mangled, and another worker who was lightheaded and dizzy. The doctor takes issue with a lot of the things his former employees say. He dismisses Anna as a short-timer who got fired for working outside her scope. He says the whole thing about not prescribing exercises was only for workers who weren't actually injured. As for the temp workers who weren't treated at the clinic, he says that's just an administrative problem and they're straightening it out. Overall, the doctor said Tesla provides its workers topnotch care.

 

Dr. Basil Besh: We treat the Tesla employees just the same way we treat our professional athletes. If Steph Curry twisted his knee on the Thursday night game, that guy's in the MRI scanner on Friday morning, and you're coming back and you're [crosstalk].

 

Will Evans: I called up Anna to tell her what her former boss said. She called it a ridiculous statement. Anna has a new job now at an Urgent Care clinic, but she still worries about the Tesla workers, who could suffer long-term damage from not getting the care they need.

 

Anna Watson: You go to Tesla and you think it's gonna be this innovative, great, wonderful place to be, this futuristic company, and I guess it's just disappointing that that's our future, basically, where the worker still doesn't matter.

 

Al Letson: Our story was produced by Reveal's Will Evans and Katharine Mieszkowski. By the way, on the day Stefan Nelson was talking to Will, Stefan got a new job offer.

 

Stefan Nelson: I feel ecstatic. Something told me today was just gonna be a good day. Now I can actually quit working at Tesla.

 

Will Evans: When are you gonna quit?

 

Stefan Nelson: Today.

 

Al Letson: It's not just worker safety the companies in Silicon Valley are under fire for. It's their hiring practices. When we come back, we'll have a report card on who gets the jobs and who holds the power in high tech. You're listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

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Al Letson: I want to recommend a podcast that I think you'll like. It's called Someone Knows Something. In Season Five, host David Ridgen takes on one of Canada's biggest cold cases, the murder of Kerrie Brown. In October of 1986, 15-year-old Kerrie Brown disappeared from a house party. Her body was found two days later in a wooded area outside of town. A suspect was arrested and charged, but the case never made it to trial. David helps track down witnesses and suspects and uncovers new evidence that may have been overlooked at the time. Subscribe to Someone Knows Something wherever you listen to podcasts.

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today we're talking about Silicon Valley and the things tech companies don't want you to know about their workplace. For Tesla, it's worker injuries. For other companies, it's who actually gets to work there. I don't mean their names, but their gender and race. We have a lot of data to help tell this story, but the numbers are really hard to talk about on the radio, so we decided to get some help from a choir.

 

We're at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, which is not far from a lot of these companies. This is a beautiful building. The sun is setting outside and you can see the last glimmer of light coming through the stained glass windows here. Yes, we're here to sing about the data.

 

Choir: (singing)

 

Al Letson: The choir is made up of church members and Reveal fans, and the numbers were put together by our colleague Sinduja Rangarajan, who's a data reporter at Reveal.

 

Sinduja R.: We're here to tell the story of diversity in Silicon Valley.

 

Al Letson: We did this with Sinduja earlier this year when she came up with her initial findings. She's kept on digging, and today we're going deeper. Here's how it's gonna work with the choir. We divided the singers up and had them sing different parts, representing who's working in big tech companies. The more singers you hear, the larger that group is.

 

Basically we're gonna group people off according to what their numbers would be in Silicon Valley.

 

Sinduja R.: Yes, what the average percentages in a tech company would be, yes.

 

Al Letson: Is this my company?

 

Sinduja R.: Is this your company? Yeah. You get to be the CEO.

 

Al Letson: Eh! There are no black CEOs.

 

Sinduja R.: Not too many.

 

Al Letson: I'm joking, I'm joking!

 

Sinduja R.: Not too many.

 

Al Letson: I'm joking!

 

Sinduja R.: Not too many, you're right about that.

 

Al Letson: The first thing we looked at was executives.

 

Sinduja, first we'll start off with the black executive, which since this is my tech company, this would be where I would sing at, correct?

 

Sinduja R.: Yes.

 

Al Letson: Let's hear black executive.

 

Choir: (sings)

 

Al Letson: How did I get such a good voice? Then we brought in Hispanic and Latino executives.

 

Choir: (sings)

 

Al Letson: Those are just two voices, yeah?

 

Sinduja R.: Yes.

 

Al Letson: Then Asian executives.

 

Choir: (sings)

 

Al Letson: That's a lot more. There's a big difference there. Then what about the number one group.

 

Choir: (sings)

 

Al Letson: Wow. There are that many white executives than black executives?

 

Sinduja R.: The percentage, yes, yes.

 

Al Letson: Give me the numbers.

 

Sinduja R.: It's 73% white executives, 21% on an average Asian executives, 3% on an average Latino executives, and 1.39% black executives.

 

Al Letson: Wow. We knew that there was a disparity, but I didn't realize it was that bad.

 

Sinduja R.: Yes, it's that bad, especially at the executive rung it is that bad, and executives make all the decisions.

 

Al Letson: Which means they decide what gets made and how it's gonna work.

 

Sinduja R.: These companies are making products that define our lives. For example, companies like Slack and Square, these are products that we use every day, and they didn't have any black or Hispanic executives in 2016. It's been really hard to get companies to release this data, and most of them want to keep it quiet.

 

Al Letson: How did you get your hands on it?

 

Sinduja R.: My co-reporter Will Evans and I did a lot of things. We filed public records requests. We collaborated with a sociology professor who's been studying high-tech workplaces. We asked the companies to give it to us. We even sued the Department of Labor, and that's still ongoing. As we've been reporting about this, we've been able to get data from more and more companies, so it's been difficult, but not impossible.

 

Choir: (sings)

 

Al Letson: What else were you able to learn from it, like about women?

 

Sinduja R.: We learned that around 80% of Silicon Valley executives are men.

 

Choir: (sings)

 

Sinduja R.: There are six companies that have no female executives. We don't know which ones, because we got this data from the professor and he couldn't share the names. Among the female executives, white women dominate.

 

Choir: (sings)

 

Al Letson: That was executives, but what about the rest of the workforce?

 

Sinduja R.: It does get more diverse as you go down the ladder, but the numbers are still troubling. There are some companies that have no black women at all, 10 companies. Again, we don't know who they are, but I can tell you about this one company that I do know, Bloom Energy, a green tech company that recently went public. They had 842 people working there in 2016. Only two of them were black women, and they weren't making the big bucks.

 

Al Letson: Sanduja, now I am totally depressed.

 

Sinduja R.: It's not all bad news. What really surprised me is that some companies were doing better than others. More diversity is not this unattainable goal to achieve.

 

Al Letson: Give me some hope here. Tell me what it is.

 

Sinduja R.: There's this company called Penumbra that you've probably never heard of. They make medical devices. The Googles and the Facebooks of the world have something to learn from them, because Penumbra ranks number one in professional women. That's number one out of the 177 of the largest tech companies.

 

Al Letson: What do you think they're doing right?

 

Sinduja R.: We went to talk to their CEO, Adam Elsesser, in his office in Alameda to find out.

 

Hi. Sinduja. Nice to meet you.

 

Adam Elsesser: Hi, I'm Adam.

 

Sinduja R.: He told us that if you want to be a diverse company, you really have to be one from the very beginning.

 

Adam Elsesser: Our first employee, our first engineer, is and was a woman.

 

Sinduja R.: She was well-known and respected in the field. That may have helped attract other women. A majority of Silicon Valley companies were founded by men, and they tend to hire people they know, mostly other men.

 

Al Letson: Some companies say that they can't hire women because there aren't enough qualified women candidates in the job pool.

 

Sinduja R.: I've also heard that a lot, but here's what Adam had to say.

 

Adam Elsesser: We've just not found that to be true. That may be in part because we already have such a diverse workforce that it's an appealing place for people to apply.

 

Al Letson: Diversity isn't just about who you hire, right?

 

Sinduja R.: Yeah, it's about building a culture where people also want to stay. Adam gave us an example of how that's working at Penumbra.

 

Adam Elsesser: We also, regardless of one's gender, try to really give credit to the person who's actually doing the work, sometimes 23 years old, right out of school, is getting acknowledged, public credit for it. It really empowers everybody. We've had a number of those examples where those people were women, and I think that has helped.

 

Al Letson: That doesn't happen that often. That's a pretty big deal. What advice did he have for other Silicon Valley companies like let's say Google?

 

Sinduja R.: Let's hear.

 

Adam Elsesser: I don't want to be at all presumptuous to tell other companies how to run their business. I don't think you will be successful if you're trying to create a more diverse workforce for the goal of saying you creating a diverse workforce. It has to be something deeper than that. It has to just be what you do. I am 100% convinced it has added greatly to our success.

 

Sinduja R.: Adam's just one CEO speaking out of his experience, but all of the academic literature also points to the same thing, that a more diverse workforce is actually better for business.

 

Al Letson: His advice sounds so simple, but so many companies struggle with this, even Google, where for years their code of conduct was don't be evil.

 

Choir: (sings)

 

Sinduja R.: It is a struggle for them. In fact, the CEO of Google released a report, and the report acknowledged that it is having trouble retaining its black employees.

 

Al Letson: Thanks, Sinduja. Sinduja Rangarajan is a data reporter at Reveal.

 

Choir: (sings)

 

Al Letson: We were just talking about Google, and for Kelly Ellis, landing a job there was a very big deal. It was 2010. She was 25. She'd worked hard to get there. She had the degree, a college minor in computer science, and she had the experience, four years as a software engineer. Like every new hire, she was given this colorful baseball cap with a propeller on it, called a nuclear hat. Then she was whisked through orientation.

 

Kelly Ellis: I was excited. It was a lot of information. It was a lot to take in. I was like, "This is gonna be great."

 

Al Letson: As one of Google's 20,000 or so employees at the time, Kelly dove into the work, but it wasn't long before she started noticing things that didn't sit well with her, little hints about salaries at Google. It seemed like her male colleagues were making more money.

 

Kelly Ellis: I remember talking to other women engineers about their similar frustrations. I think I just didn't want to believe that Google could be evil, when it comes down to it.

 

Al Letson: Kelly isn't at Google anymore. When she left, her plan was to put the experience behind her and move on with her career, and that's just what she did, until other people, including the federal government, started seeing the same red flags. Now Kelly finds herself in a high profile battle against one of the largest companies in the world. She's suing Google for discrimination.

 

The first day of this story in the spring, when we teamed up with the Decrypted podcast from Bloomberg News, we wanted to understand why Kelly and other women who worked at Google believed the company didn't pay them fairly. Bloomberg's Ellen Huet and Aki Ito investigate.

 

Ellen Huet: Kelly is on her second job since she left Google. She works out of Oakland for a tech startup, and we recently caught up over lunch. Hey.

 

Kelly Ellis: Hi.

 

Ellen Huet: Hey, nice to see you.

 

Kelly Ellis: Good to see you.

 

Ellen Huet: How's it going?

 

Kelly Ellis: Good. I haven't been here for lunch before.

 

Ellen Huet: I haven't either.

 

Aki Ito: I've been following Kelly on Twitter for years, way before this lawsuit started, because she's been so vocal about her experience as a woman in tech. She has a tiny gold septum ring in her nose and wears glasses that she nudges with the back of her hand.

 

Server: You guys want to do anything besides water to drink?

 

Kelly Ellis: I'm fine with water.

 

Ellen Huet: Water.

 

Aki Ito: Water.

 

Ellen Huet: I'm surprised by how approachable she is in person, because she's pretty salty online. Aki and I first met Kelly at her lawyer's office, and she talked to us about her time at Google. She says that she started seeing the warning signs almost immediately when she learned she'd be working with what's called front-end code.

 

Kelly Ellis: That was really, really surprising to me, because it was really different from what I had been doing before. I would say a lot of people in the software world looked at front-end engineering as something that you didn't need a degree to do.

 

Ellen Huet: This is an important distinction in software engineering. Front-end coding, which Kelly was assigned to, focuses on what the consumer sees in their browser. Back-end coding interacts with the plumbing, like servers and databases, and that's what Kelly had done before she came to Google.

 

Kelly Ellis: I very quickly noticed that that was where all of my women colleagues were working was in front-end engineering. I was like, "That's kind of annoying." At the same time I was like, "I'm at Google though."

 

Aki Ito: At Google, everyone has a level, starting at level one for interns and hourly workers, up to level 10 or higher for top executives. The higher you are, the more you tend to get paid. Kelly started to suspect that she was hired at the wrong level.

 

Kelly Ellis: I had had another software engineer join my same team the week after I did. He and I both graduated in the same year, but he was level four, when I was level three.

 

Aki Ito: On top of that, there was a whole group of new grads starlight out of college who joined a couple months after Kelly.

 

Kelly Ellis: They were all starting at the same level I was at, and that was when I was like, "This feels wrong." When I would ask people about it, they would say, "We sometimes down slot people, and then we'll just correct it come promotion time."

 

Aki Ito: Kelly applied for a promotion. She says the committee reviewing her application agreed she was doing the work of a level four, but they didn't promote her, because she hadn't been at Google long enough to show an upward trajectory.

 

Kelly Ellis: That was when I realized that I was always gonna be playing catchup, because by the time that I was going for promotion from four to five, people who were four were already at level five. I was frustrated, but I was still like, "It's still Google." I don't think I considered quitting.

 

Aki Ito: Did you ever talk about that with a manager or maybe an HR rep?

 

Kelly Ellis: Not with an HR rep, but with managers. Again, I was just told trust the system. It didn't seem like there was any remedy.

 

Aki Ito: Kelly later did get promoted, twice, and was able to move into a back-end engineering team, but after four years, she quit to go work for a smaller company, where she felt she'd have more opportunities to grow. She tried to put her experiences at Google behind her.

 

Kelly Ellis: I always felt like, yes, this probably has something to do with my gender, but I fell through the cracks somehow, and my case isn't typical.

 

Ellen Huet: Three years later, in 2017, Kelly was browsing the news online when she saw an article about a government investigation into Google. In a court hearing, a lawyer with the Department of Labor said that they'd found evidence of systemic compensation disparities at the company.

 

Kelly Ellis: I was like, "Okay, now this is getting real." I read the article and I was like, "Yep, yep, yep, yep."

 

Ellen Huet: Learning about the government's investigation made Kelly see her experience in a different light.

 

Aki Ito: Around the same time, a San Francisco lawyer named Jim Finberg read about the same investigation. Jim's a lawyer at the firm Altshuler Berzon, and he specializes in workplace discrimination cases. He remembers how struck he was by the statistical claims cited by the Department of Labor, about the alleged difference in what Google paid women and what it paid men. The government found a gap so significant that it was incredibly unlikely for it to have happened by chance. Basically, about one in 100 million. Jim compares it to a coin toss.

 

Jim Finberg: If I flip a coin, there's a one-in-two chance that it'll be heads. If I flip a coin 1,000 times, and it's only heads once out of 1,000 times, that's a lot more suspicious than if it's once out of two times.

 

Aki Ito: Jim discussed the government's findings with a couple other lawyers, and they decided to ask former and current Google employees to get in touch if they were interested in talking.

 

Jim Finberg: We put a post on the internet, and didn't necessarily think we would get much of a response. We got called by about 8,200 women who said, "Yeah, it's terrible. Women are paid less than men for the same work."

 

Aki Ito: Kelly was one of the women who saw Jim's post. She filled out an online form and then met Jim and his colleagues to tell her story in person. She heard the other women's stories too.

 

Kelly Ellis: I felt that I was finally realizing that this wasn't a well-intended accident. I'm not saying that they set out to discriminate against women, but I fully believe that they know about the problem and decided not to fix it.

 

Aki Ito: Kelly agreed to be a named plaintiff, along with two other women. Represented by Jim, the three women filed a lawsuit in September 2017. In the complaint, they said that Google pays women less than men for equal or similar work. They also said that the company puts women on career paths with lower pay ceilings. The lawsuit made international news.

 

Newscaster: Welcome back. Alphabet Investors this morning shaking off concerns over the gender discrimination lawsuit filed against Google yesterday. According to court documents, three female staff ...

 

Newscaster: The class action lawsuit accuses Google of pay discrimination against women. Three women who used to work for Google filed the suit yesterday. They claimed the tech giant ...

 

Aki Ito: Google declined our request for an interview, but the company has denied the allegations detailed in the lawsuit. The company published a blog post in the spring that addressed pay equity, and the results are very different from the government's findings that we told you about earlier. Google said it reviewed the salaries of 89% of its workforce. It excluded the jobs that it said weren't held by enough workers for the company to run a reliable analysis. For the job categories it examined, Google says it found a pay gap among a tiny group of workers. The company says it has since closed that gap.

 

Ellen Huet: Hey, nice to see you.

 

Jim Finberg: Good morning, Ellen. How are you?

 

Ellen Huet: I'm good.

 

Jim Finberg: Welcome to the Superior Court.

 

Ellen Huet: In March, a hearing for Kelly's lawsuit took place in San Francisco. I met up with Jim, the lawyer, outside the courthouse.

 

Yeah, let's go inside.

 

Jim has big plans for the lawsuit. He wants it to be a class action case. Today's hearing is to discuss the number of jobs that the proposed class action would cover.

 

Judge Mary Wiss: Thank you. Good morning. Please have a seat.

 

Jim Finberg: Good morning, Your Honor.

 

Ellen Huet: Jim's team argues that 30 different jobs should be included. Google's lawyers argue for a smaller number. The judge, Mary Wiss, rules in favor of Kelly and the other plaintiffs. I catch up with Kelly afterward.

 

Hey. I don't know, was it good?

 

Kelly Ellis: Yeah, it's good.

 

Ellen Huet: How does it feel to you personally?

 

Kelly Ellis: Good. It just feels like another step in the journey. There's a lot more to go. It's not like it feels like a victory really, but it was the result that we were hoping for.

 

Ellen Huet: Now you have to get to work?

 

Kelly Ellis: Yeah, now I gotta go back to work.

 

Ellen Huet: Sounds good. Thank you.

 

Aki Ito: Pursuing this case hasn't come without its costs. Because of how vocal she's been on gender issues, Kelly's faced a lot of online harassment over the years. The lawsuit elevated her profile even more.

 

What are the kind of things that the online trolls say to you?

 

Kelly Ellis: It's anything from, "The wage gap isn't real. Get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich," to, "You deserve to be raped to teach you a lesson about going after tech companies because you couldn't cut it as an engineer."

 

Aki Ito: Earlier this year, one of the men who threatened her online got a hold of her phone number and started calling her. When she told him to stop, he told Kelly that he was in her neighborhood and mentioned a restaurant on her block. She filed a restraining order against him. Despite all of that, she says she still doesn't regret speaking up.

 

Kelly Ellis: I'm so lucky to have had all of the opportunities that landed me in this career. A lot of that comes from my privilege. I really want other people to have the opportunity, because I do think that technology is the future of the economy, and I want it to be available to everyone and for everyone to have the chance to succeed. If entire groups of people are being compensated unfairly or not given the same opportunities because of factors that they can't help, then that's not the kind of industry I want to be in.

 

Aki Ito: For now, Kelly's trying to live her life as normally as possible, going to work, hanging out with friends, as she waits for the suit to move forward. Jim expects to file a motion on her behalf early next year to get the case certified as a class action suit. If approved, that would open it up to thousands of women who have worked at Google.

 

Al Letson: Our story was reported by Ellen Huet and Aki Ito in partnership with Decrypted, a podcast from Bloomberg News. You can find Decrypted wherever you get your podcasts. In the interest of full disclosure, I've followed Kelly on Twitter for a while. In January, before I even knew we were doing this story, she tweeted that she was being harassed and she was raising money to stay in a hotel. I contributed 50 bucks. When we come back, women of color who have worked for Google and other big tech companies talk about how they get ahead in Silicon Valley. That's next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

We've been talking a lot today about diversity in Silicon Valley, who works there and who doesn't. We've already heard how hard it is for women, especially women of color, but there are some women of color making it in Silicon Valley, and we wanted to hear from them.

 

Cristina Kim: What I'm gonna do is I'm gonna say my name, where I'm from.

 

Al Letson: KQED's Cristina Kim and Reveal's Sinduja Rangarajan got eight of them together on a Thursday night after work in January.

 

Cristina Kim: You all have to respond to this too. The theme song that you want to play every time you walk into a room.

 

Female: I think it's gonna be Queen. I think I like that. I listen to it every day.

 

Al Letson: These women have come straight from work to meet in a wood-paneled room on the top floor of the San Francisco Public Library over quiche and tea.

 

Female: My song would probably be Taylor Swift's Shake It Off.

 

Al Letson: All these women are successful professionals, product managers, engineers, entrepreneurs.

 

Female: The only thing that's popping into my head right now is Lucky Star from Madonna, so I'm just gonna go with that one.

 

Al Letson: They had so much to say about their experiences that they eventually got kicked out of the library because it was closing. Un Jung Lee is a consultant to tech companies. [Shanaya] Levin is product manager who's worked at eBay and Google. They've both dealt with feeling out of place at the office. Here's Un Jung.

 

Un Jung Lee: In the startup environments that I've been in, that culture is dominated by tech bros. Tech bros playing video games and calling each other bro and dude. It's almost like you're forced to channel your own inner tech bro in order to even pretend like you're relating. After a while it becomes exhausting, because you're living this double consciousness.

 

Shanaya Levin: I make it a point to showcase how similar I am, because I already know walking in that I look different. I educate myself on what's happening in current events so when someone yells Bitcoin out in the middle of the office or Ethereum is dropping like a rock, I'm able to say, "Oh, that's crazy, blah blah blah blah blah." They're surprised, and then it gives them the reassurance that I also fit in with this team.

 

Al Letson: Sukrutha Bhadouria, a senior engineering manager at Salesforce, talked about how some women engineers lack confidence.

 

Sukrutha B.: When I've had man and a woman report to me, I have to do a lot more to push the woman, who is equally or sometimes more competent, to take on a new opportunity, just because she's a little bit hesitant about how she thinks she will do. Before even trying, there's this doubt factor that comes in.

 

Jennifer Wong: There's a challenge of asking for the things that you want and being very vocal about the things that you want and that you need, and I've done that.

 

Al Letson: That was Jennifer Wong, an engineer at Envoy.

 

Jennifer Wong: It's a double-edged sword, because then you become that vocal, annoying person. I've actually heard in the past that one of my previous managers called me a pain in the ass, which is super funny, because I thought he was an amazing manager. He definitely provided what I needed to move up within the company, but also he thought I was a pain in the ass.

 

Cristina Kim: That's literally the trade-off we have to make every day, do I want to be liked or do I want the things. What if you lean into it and actually find some other women, start a thing where the whole point is we're gonna be a pain in the ass, hash tag be a pain in the ass, whatever, literally start a movement so that you're taking the critique and you're flipping it.

 

Al Letson: Big tech companies do have organized diversity efforts, but participating in them can come with a cost. Here's Shanaya Levin again.

 

Shanaya Levin: I was on a diversity committee at Google. We put together proposals and we put together ideas. There are so many ideas. There's so many things that you could do, but we also had jobs. You have to take time off work and the ability to get all of those people in a room weekly to make sure that you're tackling the issues and making sure that you're doing everything that you're supposed to do legally as well, there's a lot of other different hurdles that you have to jump through.

 

Cristina Kim: Did you ever get paid to do any of this work? Because that sounds like a ton of work.

 

Shanaya Levin: No.

 

Cristina Kim: That's my point is so often, if we're the only black person in a group, then we get tokenized and asked to do all of this work without being compensated?

 

Shanaya Levin: For sure.

 

Cristina Kim: How do you feel about that?

 

Shanaya Levin: I have just come to the realization that I'm gonna be one of the people responsible for women of color in tech.

 

Cristina Kim: How do you feel about the fact that all of this time and effort that you're pouring into helping the company get more diverse is literally taking away from your time in working on your career?

 

Shanaya Levin: I don't think about it for the company. If I could help a woman of color get into a different company, it's about them, as opposed to which company they go to work for. The company should be lucky to have them. It's also about our customers getting better products in their hands. For me, yes, there is a lot of time and energy that that takes, but I'm willing to do it, because if I don't, who will?

 

Cristina Kim: I will argue that the company is fully aware that they are getting that from you-

 

Shanaya Levin: Absolutely.

 

Cristina Kim: ... yet they are not compensating you for it. They are, at best, lazy in compensating you and recognizing you in the way you should be, and at worst, willfully just letting you do it at the expense of your career.

 

Shylin Simmons: To be candid, I've been in the tech industry for 20 years, and we've spent a lot of time, so much time, talking about the challenges of diversity and women getting promoted and the diversity pipeline. Nowadays I want to see some change from the top down.

 

Al Letson: Shylin Simmons is an ex-Googler and an entrepreneur.

 

Shylin Simmons: I want to see that there are more women on boards of directors. In the past year I joined a board of directors for a $1.4 billion business, because I feel that it was important for me as a woman of color to sit at this company and help represent. That's what I'm proud of. I'm trying to do some direct action towards what I think effort is needed.

 

Al Letson: We're ending our show this week with that anthem of women's empowerment, Respect. Respect to all the women who participated in our round table, including Shylin Simmons, Un Jung Lee, Shanaya Levin, Jennifer Wong, and Sukrutha Bhadouria. Our lead producer for this week's show is, hello, Katharine Mieszkowski, and Taki Telonidis edited our show. A lot of people here at Reveal helped out this week, including senior editors Ziva Branstetter and Michael Corey. Special thanks to Eric Sagara, Cristina Kim, Professor Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, and the team at the Center For Employment Equity, and from Bloomberg News, Pia Gadkari, Liz Smith, Magnus Hendrickson, Francesca Levy, and Kristy Westgard.

 

Choir: (sings)

 

Al Letson: Thanks to all the incredible singers in our Silicon Valley Choir and Stefan Schneider of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, Jay Weezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Catherine [Raymondo], Caitlin [Benz], and Cat [Shookman]. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Camaraya], like ...

 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember ...

 

Choir: (sings)

 

Female: From PRX.