Ex-engineer files age discrimination complaint against SpaceX

    WORLD  01 December 2022 - 23:34

    SpaceX has become the subject of another worker dispute just weeks after unfair labor complaints were filed against the company.

    A former engineer at SpaceX, the Elon Musk-run rocket company, filed an age discrimination complaint against the firm with the state of Washington, alleging he was repeatedly passed up for opportunities in favor of younger, less experienced colleagues and was retaliated against when he filed complaints with the company’s human resources department and chief operating officer, The Guardian reports.

    John Johnson, a former principal optics manufacturing engineer at SpaceX who was hired in 2018 at the age of 58, said he was routinely stripped of responsibilities after he underwent back surgery due to a work-related incident, according to an affidavit the Guardian reviewed. Those responsibilities were then assigned to “younger, less qualified engineers, many of whom I was responsible to train”, the affidavit reads.

    “Respondent managers continued to marginalize me, minimizing my contributions, limiting my visibility to upper management, and thereby curtailing my opportunities for professional recognition and advancement,” Johnson wrote in the affidavit.

    The Washington state human rights commission confirmed the affidavit was filed with the agency but said that it has not been assigned for investigation “due to our backlog”. All employee discrimination complaints must first be filed to a state agency before a person can file a lawsuit, according to Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California College of Law in San Francisco. In this case, Johnson is asking the agency to investigate his allegations after which it can choose to file a charge against the company if it is found to be in violation of any laws. Alternatively, the agency may choose to do a broader investigation if Johnson’s allegations are found to be part of a larger pattern of discrimination at SpaceX.

    SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment by the time this story was published.

    Johnson provided more details of his experience in an essay published on Wednesday on Lioness, a website that provides resources to whistleblowers and publishes first-person stories.

    “I have watched the recent news about the takeover at Twitter without much surprise,” Johnson said. “I was an employee of one of Elon Musk’s other companies … As we move into this new era of wealthy industrialists taking the helm of the largest tech firms, I feel compelled to tell my story.”

    In the essay, he wrote that he filed complaints with HR as well as SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell. In a January email the Guardian reviewed, Johnson wrote to Shotwell that he felt his “ability to succeed and advance within SpaceX is restricted because of perceptions of” his age. Shotwell responded by saying she was sorry Johnson was experiencing this. “I can promise you we are going to fix it, though,” Shotwell wrote.

    In February, however, Johnson said he was notified by HR that his work was no longer needed because “business conditions had changed”. Johnson said he was given the choice of “either leaving the company or assuming responsibilities outside of my area of expertise”, according to the affidavit.

    Several months later, after having his abilities repeatedly questioned by his director and another engineer, Johnson left the company. “In the face of ongoing age discrimination, harassment, and a climate of hostility that Respondent HR failed to satisfactorily address, I felt I had no choice but to resign,” he wrote in the affidavit.

    The allegation comes just weeks after a group of former SpaceX employees filed unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board alleging they were fired for openly criticizing Elon Musk. It also joins a cacophony of labor disputes over the management and treatment of workers at companies owned or run by Musk. At Twitter, at least three lawsuits have been filed on behalf of full-time workers and contractors as well as employees with disabilities in the aftermath of mass layoffs and Musk’s ultimatum requiring workers to go into the office and put in long hours at a high intensity or to quit. Musk has owned Twitter for just over a month.

    At Tesla, too, workers have filed various labor disputes including a lawsuit alleging 15 Black former or current Tesla employees were subject to racial abuse. A Tesla shareholder also sued the company in June, accusing the electric vehicle maker of neglecting to address complaints of a hostile and discriminatory work environment.

    Johnson said he was inspired to lodge internal complaints by a former SpaceX engineer, Ashley Kosak, who spoke publicly about the harassment she experienced at the company.

    Employment discrimination cases are notoriously difficult to prove, Dubal said, and because Johnson resigned and was not fired he may not be able to easily demonstrate that the company took action against him based on a protected identity. However, it is still a significant case, she argued. “It’s really important from a social change perspective that we have this insight and that hopefully there can be an impetus to change the practices within the firm,” Dubal said.

    “It’s pretty rare for anyone, much less a highly skilled worker in a scrutinized tech market, to come forward and say, ‘I have experienced this kind of discrimination,’” she said. “Part of the reason is they won’t be hired again. What I think is really valuable here is we’re getting insight into the experience of at least one person at a Musk-owned firm.”

    In the months before his resignation, Johnson wrote that while his performance reviews were “consistently solid”, at one point being lauded for “pretty much single-handedly” setting up an entire optical supply chain, two of his roles were permanently reassigned to less experienced engineers leading up to his February 2020 surgery without his knowledge. “These young men in their twenties and thirties descended upon me right before my surgery, scheduling meetings for a download on everything I was doing in those areas,” Johnson wrote. He said he missed only a few days of work.

    This pattern continued, he claimed, and by mid-2020 more than half of his job duties had been permanently reassigned. At one point, when Johnson inquired why another engineer was assigned to shadow him, he said his manager told him it was because he might “retire or die”.

    “I responded that surely my age couldn’t be a legal reason for a job assignment,” Johnson wrote in his essay. The manager reported himself to HR but “nothing was done to remedy my situation or restore my job duties; and a few months later, that Starlink manager was promoted,” Johnson wrote.

    Caliber.Az

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