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Tesla promised jobs, but delivered a housing crisis, injured workers

Lane Dillon woke up from work with a bad feeling. He clearly remembers thinking, "Man, I hope nothing happens to me."

Dillon had recently been hired at Tesla Gigafactory, a substitute for a subcontractor who installed battery racks at the giant factory just outside Reno, Nevada. He was excited about the job. The prestige that Tesla brought to the region had half of the state's abuse.

But people had been hurt in his unit, he said. And Dillon left home that morning with an annoying feeling of worry.

Several hours after his shift, Dillon helped guide a stand into place so that it could be fastened to the factory floor. The rows are so heavy that it takes a team of four to maneuver them.

See: A tour inside Tesla's giant Gigafactory outside Reno, Nevada

When completed, Tesla's Gigafactory 1

will be the largest building in the world. [19659007] Benjamin Spillman, Reno Gazette Journal

Unfortunately for Dillon, he was the guy who kept the bottom of the rack. He put his hand forward as the team released it.

"When it hit my finger and I pulled it out, I knew it," he said. "I was like & # 39; OK, something is no longer there. & # 39;"

He was wearing gloves so he could not immediately see that the rack had smashed the upper thumb on his right index finger.

Dillon is now a 24-year-old grad student at the Georgia Institute of Technology. But in 2017, he was one of a number of injuries that happened in the three years Tesla's first Gigafactory was built and put into production.

  Lane Dillon, an engineering student, lost his fingertip in a work accident at Tesla Gigafactory that was never reported to OSHA.

Lane Dillon, an engineering student, lost the tip of a finger in a Tesla Gigafactory work accident that was never reported to OSHA.

Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY

It is impossible to see if Dillon & # 39; s injury could have been avoided because the company never reported it to workplace safety inspectors as required by state and federal law.

But other challenging effects of the company's rapid growth are clear.

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From the efforts of local emergency responders, to aggravate the region's critical housing shortages and tax the area's roads, Tesla has brought a number of complications to the region. State and local governments were poorly prepared for those consequences, and because of the tax cuts, they had limited financial resources to address them, according to a month-long study by USA TODAY's investigative podcast, The City.

It all began in 2014, when Nevada won stiff competition among the states for Tesla's ambitious battery plant project.

Tesla had promised the states that they would build a factory larger than any building in the world, employ thousands of people and generate at least $ 5 billion in capital investment. To score the project, local authorities promised lightning-fast building permits and state lawmakers stormed through the largest tax reduction package in state history, worth $ 1.3 billion.

Tesla, and partner Panasonic, built the factory at a furious pace and put it into production even as construction continued. Tesla CEO Elon Musk had promised investors that the company would make 5,000 Model 3 sedans per week by the end of 2017. Gigafactory was key to that goal.

And it went up quickly. Factory employment jumped from 24 people in 2015 to 3200 by the end of 2017 and doubled it by the end of 2018. Today, more than 7,000 people work there.

The enterprise dwarf anything Northern Nevada had seen before.

Inside the famous factory

Musk has not yet made his promise to build the world's largest building in the Nevada desert. But when 30 percent is completed, Gigafactory is already a monolith.

Tucked away in the burnt brown hillsides of the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, about 20 miles east of Reno, the building is half a mile long and nearly a quarter-mile wide at its widest point.

Entering the mysterious factory is not easy. Guards at an entrance station stop anyone without authorization from going further. While construction was underway, Tesla bought thousands of acres around the factory, in part to protect it from its appearance.

Although Tesla has begun offering community tours for the past year or so, it took several weeks of discussion before the US TODAY was allowed to be in.

Inside, the factory is overwhelming to the senses: giant robot arms swing through the air , driverless forklifts buzz and hang around the work site, workers rush to their stations to keep up with demanding targets.

The building is so cavernous that even the tour leaders got lost and showed reporters around. Tesla's vice president of operations, Chris Lister, said he posts more than 10,000 steps a day. A bathing break may require a 20-minute return trip.

Everything is on a gargantuan scale. It took more than 8,000 construction workers to build the factory. The more than 7,000 people who work there now empty millions of battery cells a week.

The Nevada plant is Tesla's first Gigafactory. Another is under construction in China, and the company is still looking for a website for a third in Europe. As the first, the Nevada Gigafactory is a kind of test kitchen.

"The thing with Gigafactory 1, is it really an experiment, how can we do things as efficiently as possible?" Said Lister. "And you know, Gigafactory 10, let's say, is going to be 10 times better than Gigafactory 1 from all the learning we catch as we continue."

All this experiment – designing production lines as they were put into production, for example, and designing the building at the same time as it was operating as a factory – also created a particularly chaotic environment, according to interviews and public documents.

'We ask for EMS'

It is difficult to get a complete account of personal injury. Federal law does not require that site-specific injuries be reported publicly.

Documents obtained by the United States TODAY, including 911 calls and inspection reports from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, show damage to the Gigafactory near Reno occurs on a routine basis: at least three a month.

Tesla has had documented security issues at its Fremont, California plant. Disclosure by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that Tesla underreported the injuries, failed to properly train its workers and even avoided recommended safety labels because Musk allegedly did not like the color yellow. Forbes also found that the Fremont plant had received more fines and breaches of workplace safety than other car manufacturing facilities.

As was the case in Fremont, Gigafactory has created significant work for the state's OSHA office. Inspectors were on site at Tesla more than 90 times during the first three operating years. On average, other factories in the area saw an inspector once during the same time period.

See: A bird's-eye view of the Tesla Gigafactory

Nevada won the Tesla Gigafactory by offering streamlined permits and significant tax breaks. [19659007] Jason Bean, Reno Gazette Journal

Since 2017, Tesla has been fined $ 26,900 for violating the Gigafactory workplace, but has succeeded in reducing or eliminating almost all fines. Three of the four fines involved amputations.

Even OSHA does not have a complete inventory of work injuries. Dillon's injury, for example, was never reported to the agency, even though he suffered an amputation and was hospitalized. State and federal law requires a report for all amputations and injuries that require hospitalization.

The factory is also the source of a flood of 911 emergency calls. In 2018, some Gigafactory 911 rang more than once a day, on average for things like brawls, suicide attempts, DUIs, thefts and drug overdoses.

List: Hear some of the 911 calls to Gigafactory in section 4 of the city

A quarter of these 911 calls were of medical concern, such as heart problems, difficulty breathing, seizures and pregnancy problems. These conversations also included work injuries: finger disputes such as Dillons, an electrocution, head injuries from unsecured structural debris that blew off the roof in a gust of wind, people falling through holes in the floor.

Preparedness for the factory is difficult because of its size and serious communication problems inhibit getting critical information to envoys at the right time.

During a chemical spill in 2017, firefighters, for example, were met with "quite a bit of resistance" from Tesla bosses, according to the incident report. Tesla supervisors could not immediately state the name of the chemical that spilled, or help firefighters account for people who should have been evacuated from the building. Workers ignored caution tape to keep them out of contaminated areas.

Twelve people were treated and released from the hospital. They had been exposed to carbonic acid, a by-product of the battery production process that causes respiratory problems and skin and eye irritation. No one was seriously injured.

None of it surprised Chad Dehne, who worked at Gigafactory for months supervising the team of temps that inspect battery tanks. He was there during a similar incident in 2018.

When a call came in to evacuate, Dehne said workers were scattering. No one seemed to be in charge of making sure everyone did it safely, he said. As a supervisor, he used his own homemade login sheets to find all his workers on duty that day.

"Come to find out that there were two people still inside the building," he said. “I went in … They worked in there! And to be exposed. These guys said 'Evacuate the building' and just hit their feet. And not one person was responsible for going in there to make sure everyone was gone. "

Because of the tax cuts provided by state lawmakers, Tesla can operate essentially tax-free in Nevada for 10 years and with a significantly reduced tax bill for another decade. Since 2017, Storey County, home to Gigafactory, has lost $ 65 million in tax revenue.

  Tesla CEO Elon Musk, left, and former Nevada Prime Minister Brian Sandoval shook hands after the 2014 announcement that the carmaker would build its $ 5 billion Gigafactory outside Reno.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, left, and former Nevada State Councilman Brian Sandoval, welcomed the 2014 announcement that the carmaker would build its $ 5 billion Gigafactory outside Reno.

Cathleen Allison, AP Photo

In other words, Tesla does not help pay for the increase in government services it uses.

Take the Storey County Fire District, which is responsible for responding to all of these emergency room calls. Last year, firefighters responded 104 times to 1 Electric Avenue, the home of Gigafactory.

The fire chief had to open and staff a new fire station to respond to the increased demand.

On the one hand, Chief Jeff Nevin downplayed the effect Gigafactory's arrival had on his department.

"There may be days when there are the only calls we make," Nevin said. “But you know, four days after that, we're not going at all. So it works out. "

But then he acknowledged that the county is under a strain of trying to answer the extra calls without extra tax revenue.

"Right now, we're still dealing with trying to work within the same constraints that we had four or five years ago," he said.

Although the assessed value of properties in his district has spiked 74 percent since Tesla's arrival, the fire department's property tax revenue has grown by only 7 percent.

& # 39; Tesla helped me find out & # 39;

Tesla claims US TODAY's focus on security issues is unfair. The company refused to make anyone available for an interview, but said in a statement that "a few isolated incidents … are not representative of our overall security culture at Gigafactory 1."

"Tesla, our suppliers and our contractors make up over 10,000 people on site – the size of a small town," the statement states. "Reporting that both personal and work-related medical emergencies over the course of four years make Tesla a outlier is unfair and misleading. "

Although Tesla claimed to have a better injury rate than other factories, it declined to provide any data to support the claim. Because damages could not be obtained through a public request for government records, it was impossible to confirm it by comparing it with publicly available industry averages.

So far, Tesla has met all the requirements that legislators have set to be eligible for tax credit, most of the factory employees are Nevada residents, and the company has invested 4 $ 9 billion in capital investment, all for its own plant – including the value of the land, the building and all the equipment inside it.

  I sabelle West was hired at Tesla thanks to a program at her high school, but struggled to find housing in the area. Here she is at her workstation inside the Tesla Gigafactory.

Isabelle West was hired at Tesla thanks to a program at her high school, but struggled to find housing in the area. Here she is at her workstation at Tesla Gigafactory.

Provided by Mikolaj Walczuk, Tesla

The average wage for Tesla workers is $ 30 an hour, four times Nevada's minimum wage. And many of the jobs there require skilled labor, something Tesla helps grow in the state by funding science and engineering programs at local schools and paying for college education for some workers.

For some, the factory has offered a career path that did not exist before.

Isabelle West, an engaging 19-year-old with pink hair, grew up in Las Vegas. She struggled through high school and couldn't get to college. But through a program for students at risk in her school, she got an interview with Tesla.

"And it took two weeks, but when that phone call (came in) my mom was right there with me," West said. "And I was like & # 39; I got the job! & # 39;"

West started as a manufacturing partner to earn $ 14.50 an hour and is in a training program at the local community college to become a technician. Her teaching is covered by Tesla. She hopes to become an engineer someday, something she said she would never have imagined.

"Tesla helped me figure it out myself," she said.

The housing crisis

When West arrived at Reno for the job, she hit a large garden: she could not find housing.

"My parents actually went and bought a little RV trailer type that I could live in for a graduation gift," she said. like: & # 39; Oh, you can just get an RV seat and stay there and it will be cheaper for you. & # 39; "

But she couldn't find an open RV spot anywhere near the Gigafactory. Some Tesla workers live out of campers parked in city streets or in Walmart parking lots. Telltale black-and-white Tesla parking tickets hang from their sale rview mirrors.

West and her parents went to Craigslist to look for a roommate or a cheap apartment. Again, no luck.

Eventually, the program that helped West find her job at Tesla also found her house. and other workers in her program live in student housing near the University of Nevada, Reno.

Not everyone is so lucky.

Donald Thomas, a 50-year-old Michigan electrician, lives in a tent next to the nearby railroad tracks of Reno downtown. He moved here to work at Gigafactory. While working, he stayed in a hotel room that his employer had paid.

"I always like the job," he said of his time as an electrician. "I like to see how d it looks and how it does it after it's all put together, after it has worked. I stand there and say, & # 39; Damn, I did. & # 39; "

But after a dispute with his manager, he said he lost his job and his home. lived on homeless shelter for a while, but said his tools were stolen there. Without his tools he couldn't find work.

  A camp for homeless people is seen along the edge of the Truckee River in Reno April 5, 2018. The arrival of Tesla Gigafactory has exacerbated a housing shortage in the Reno area.

A camp for homeless people is seen along the edge of the Truckee River in Reno April 5, 2018. Tesla Gigafactory has come to exacerbate a housing shortage in the Reno area.

Jason Bean, Reno Gazette Journal

Reno is in the midst of a critical housing shortage. The city's only homeless shelter is chronically over capacity. The weekly motels that depend on the last resort of 4,000 people are demolished. The waiting list for housing assistance is so long that new names are no longer added.

The vacancies in the apartments are close to zero. The median home price has soared to $ 400,000. And without a statement, 300 percent is greater when landlords sell out to new landlords, which in turn raises the rent.

Even Tesla's musk has lamented the lack of local housing and says it is the biggest constraint on growth at Gigafactory. [19659002] "We are looking at creating some kind of housing just on the site of Gigafactory, using high quality mobile houses, which I think would be great, because then people could actually just go here," he said at a Technical Summit in 2018.

To date, the housing collection has not been built, leaving workers on the road commuting from outside the area.

Traffic has increased exponentially on the highway passing through the industrial park which is home to Gigafactory, jumping from 5,100 to 19,000 vehicles a day in three years. On the highway between the park and Reno, traffic has increased 50 percent in the same time period.

Reno City Council has responded to the housing shortage by expanding the homeless shelter, creating dormitory-style workhouses and planning for a small hometown.

But very little, if any, of that work was done – or planned – before the region went after the Gigafactory project.

"We could have done better … in terms of zoning and other things that would encourage more affordable housing, more landfill, more family homes," said Mike Kazmierski, who heads the Economic Development Association of Western Nevada. "It's time to catch up."

Fil Corbitt and Emily Liu, producers with The City podcast, contributed further reporting to this story.

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