Former Workers at Elon Musk’s SolarCity Allege Employment Abuses, Improper Installations

By Jessica Goodhart. Originally published at Capital and Main

Barely 18 and fresh out of high school, George Estrada was lucky to land a job as a solar installer. He needed work, and the pay — $15 per hour — was not bad for a teenage dad willing to work hard.

The year was 2012. SolarCity – the company cofounded by Elon Musk’s cousin Lyndon Rive, had just gone public after gobbling up smaller installers across the country. While SolarCity has been an incredible job engine, for some workers the pace of growth has come at a cost. In lawsuits and interviews, workers allege being denied overtime, meal and bathroom breaks, minimum wages, and complain about managers’ inattention to quality and safety.

“At first it was good,” Estrada remembers. But four years later, after SolarCity had exploded in size, from 2,500 employees to more than 15,000, Estrada quit, disillusioned by what he says was the company’s focus on meeting sales goals over workmanship and the well-being of its employees.

Estrada had taken a ride on what some call the “solarcoaster,” joining an industry that has provided jobs and opportunity to tens of thousands of workers across the country, even as it has recently faced mass layoffs and employee lawsuits — raising concerns about how fairly workers in a fast-growing, Wall Street-fueled industry are being treated.

No company is more emblematic of the residential solar industry’s rollicking ride than SolarCity, with its recognizable fleet of green and white trucks, vast army of salespeople and installers, and its headline-grabbing chairman, Elon Musk, whose electric car company Tesla acquired SolarCity last November, several months before reporting in securities filings that the solar company had shed 3,000 jobs in 2016.

SolarCity, which is based in San Mateo, built its name on a zero-down financing model that leveraged investor dollars and federal tax credits to finance a rapid expansion that has yet to produce positive returns. Its big vision captured the imagination of environmentalists like Bill McKibben, who wrote a 2015 New Yorker article that quoted chief executive officer Rive proclaiming that his goal was to get solar on a rooftop “every three seconds.” The climate crisis seemed to demand that kind of vision and scale of operation.

The industry also includes smaller regional firms such as Sullivan Solar Power in San Diego, where Estrada went to work after leaving SolarCity. Started in 2004, Sullivan Solar Power built its customer base slowly and aimed at creating a highly trained and well-compensated workforce. Estrada would find a different pace of work there, one that he says has allowed him to focus more care on each customer and to build a future as a skilled electrician, able to find work in any industry.

At SolarCity, crews are provided with “panel pay,” a bonus system that incentivizes speed by paying installers for every panel they install if that rate is higher than their hourly wage. According to Estrada, the rapid pace led to leaky roofs when holes drilled to secure the panels weren’t properly sealed, requiring return visits after customers complained.

It is impossible to know whether the company’s incentive system led to sloppy workmanship, but complaints of roof leaks following SolarCity installations do appear on the Better Business Bureau’s website. Homes outfitted with solar are required to pass muster with city building inspectors.

Estrada claims he was asked by supervisors to accept bonuses in exchange for not reporting overtime. Because of the pace of work, he was unable to get time off to be with his family, he says. In 2016, he quit, before the company began laying off workers.

SolarCity declined to comment for this story.

Some workers I interviewed spoke highly of the company, crediting SolarCity with providing ample training and promotion opportunities, generous benefits, as well as a chance to be part of an innovative company on the forefront of the move toward clean energy. One former installer, a graduate of Homeboy Industries’ training program, described SolarCity as “the best job I ever had” and is now earning $55,000 a year as an inspector for the company. Kevin Midei, who worked as an installer in Maryland in 2015, and who now runs his own business, says SolarCity is “cool” and “forward-looking,” and, he says, in reference to the 2016 layoffs, “like any other young industry,” it faces ups and downs.

George Estrada, however, is hardly alone in criticizing SolarCity’s employment practices. Ravi Whitworth, another installer, and four other plaintiffs, are seeking class action status in an amended complaint filed in March in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, claiming that the company denied them overtime, minimum wages, meal and rest breaks.

The company did not provide its workers access to bathrooms during worktime, requiring them to urinate in bottles or buckets while on the job, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs — installers from various parts of California — claim to represent 2,000 workers at the company.

One of the lawsuit’s allegations – that SolarCity failed to compensate installers for travel between jobs — was repeated in another lawsuit by former SolarCity crew leader John Zazueta, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2016.

Zazueta also alleges he was fired by SolarCity after he  refused to perform electrical work under conditions he deemed unsafe. His charge echoes Estrada’s claim that, when he worked out of the San Diego warehouse, certified electricians “would get fired if they asked too many questions.”

Some of the lawsuit allegations are also echoed by “Jake,” a Southern California field inspection coordinator for SolarCity who requested that his real name not be used in this article. He confirmed that installers clock out between jobs and also said the company was not always forthcoming with promised wages.

“There’s the thing where they promise if you get it done in a certain amount of time, you get this bonus pay, but it never happens,” he said. Jake has spent about four years in the industry, with a year and a half of that at SolarCity, and earns $16 per hour. He too hopes to become an electrician.

SolarCity is not the only firm to face adversity recently. Even though business is strong for many installers, the residential solar industry’s other large national firms, including Vivint and Sungevity, have also had a difficult year, according to Energywire. A chaotic layoff at Sungevity, which declared insolvency in March, prompted the filing of a lawsuit by workers alleging the company violated laws requiring advance notice of mass layoffs.

Nicholas De Blouw, an employment attorney, works at a firm that has brought lawsuits seeking class action status for employees at the big solar companies, including Verengo, Sunrun, Vivint and SolarCity. These companies’ focus on meeting corporate targets has caused them to run afoul of California labor law, he says.

“It’s a classic example of these big corporations caring about one thing – especially if they are filing IPOs [initial public offerings] on the stock exchange – they care about the shareholder’s bottom line.” Employees in the field “are the ones that get the squeeze,” says De Blouw.

Sitting in the backyard of an Escondido customer’s home, Estrada is happy, having finished a day’s work installing panels for Sullivan Solar Power, where he went to work in 2016 after leaving SolarCity.

Estrada is in a five-year electrical apprenticeship program—with a steady wage progression—that gives him access to full health, dental and vision benefits while he earns $17.25 per hour. It took him four months to quality for the program, a process that included tests and interviews, and that puts him on a path to be an electrician, where he will be able to earn more than $90,000 per year.

“You’re talking about a way different story,” says Estrada who, at 23, has a second child on the way. “Here we take our time,” he adds. “We replace every tile. We double-test everything.” Like every apprentice in the firm, he always works under the supervision of a journeyman electrician.

Sullivan Solar Power doesn’t have the reach of SolarCity. Since its inception in 2004, the company has served more than 6,000 homes in San Diego, Riverside and Orange counties, to SolarCity’s 300,000 in more than 20 states. Still, it is a major player in San Diego, voted by San Diego Union Tribune readers as the best solar company in the area and listed by Inc. Magazine as one of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in the country seven years in a row. It has about 150 employees and revenues of $50 million a year, according to its founder, Daniel Sullivan.

Sullivan brings to the job his background as an electrician and hires workers through International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hiring halls. He acknowledges that using union labor costs more, but says that what he spends on the front end he saves by only having to do the job once. Homeowners “are installing a generating system on the roof of their most valuable asset,” he points out. The company has no customer complaints on the Better Business Bureau website.

The company also has a different approach to growth than SolarCity. Whereas SolarCity, a public company, has relied on Wall Street investors to finance its rapid expansion, Sullivan Solar Power has reinvested its profits.

Of course, the vast majority of residential solar companies do not hire union labor through hiring halls. But Sullivan Solar Power’s employment practices are the norm for firms that are building the giant, utility-scale solar arrays in the desert, according to Carol Zabin, co-chair of the University of California, Berkeley’s Donald Vial Center on Employment in the Green Economy. The benefits of union jobs in the solar industry go far beyond higher wages, says Zabin.

“The state-approved apprenticeship programs used by union firms give workers a set of skills and capabilities that can be used broadly, not only in solar, but in all kinds of other kinds of construction projects, giving workers a real career, not just a job as a solar installer, making them much more employable,” Zabin says.

The entire solar industry is becoming more serious about training and there are good jobs to be had at union and non-union firms alike, according to Brano Goluža, an associate professor at L.A. Trade Technical College, who has run a renewable training program for the past 10 years. Whereas five years ago, “companies were looking for bodies,” Goluža says, now they are requiring board certifications and are also looking for licensed electricians and other tradespeople.

A new and fast-growing industry, solar is like a “teenager” going through the expected “growing pains,” according to Goluža.

In spite of President Trump’s pro-fossil-fuel agenda, the demand for clean energy alternatives is not going away, Goluža adds. Growth has slowed in the rooftop solar industry in the past year, but many see the evolution of battery storage technology and vehicle electrification as promising for the long-term health of the residential solar industry.

And industry leaders have been cautiously optimistic that Republicans will leave be the federal Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), a major policy driver of rooftop solar, in spite of Trump’s efforts to roll back the Clean Power Plan.

“There is support for solar on both sides of the aisle,” according to Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association. She said that the extension of the tax credit, which will ramp down over time, was “developed and passed by the same folks who remain in control of Congress.”

As long as there are more homes going solar, that’s good news for George Estrada who, after a long day on a rooftop, says he loves his work.

“You do something different every day. You’re out in the sun,” Estrada says. “Nothing’s better than this.”

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21 comments

  1. Larry

    Solar City and others like it rely on an army of eager and underemployed US citizens to fill out it’s ranks. With regulators that gave a damn, these companies would not be able to get away with such shabby treatment of their employees. Hopefully the class action suit extracts some justice and changes in behavior of the fast moving solar installation companies.

    Reply
    1. jrs

      if they actually stick to employing U.S. citizens I’m kind of impressed about that (it might be for legal reasons), because construction in southern California, eh doesn’t tend to be strictly legal citizens. So maybe the solar industry is an exception in that way.

      Yes of course regulation or else unionization is what is needed. Although of course some companies are pretty good to work for and others horrible, it is pretty hard to tell from employee reports, it’s rather like the fable of everyone feeling a different part of the elephant. Hiring union would make a company exemplary, that’s a real accomplishment there. But it shouldn’t be mostly about good and bad companies, enforce the damn overtime laws already, and any construction regulations as well (although construction seems to be an industry where NOONE is really obeying all the construction regulations).

      Reply
    2. Procopius

      It seems like most Americans don’t remember George Insull, hailed as a genius for unifying the electrical grid throughout the midwest, vilified as a fraudster for his complex, indecipherable financial arrangements, who is credited with saying, “The best aid for labor efficiency I know of is a long line of men waiting at the [factory] gate.”

      Reply
  2. JCC

    As usual with many of these types of lawsuits:

    “It’s a classic example of these big corporations caring about one thing – especially if they are filing IPOs [initial public offerings] on the stock exchange – they care about the shareholder’s bottom line.” Employees in the field “are the ones that get the squeeze,” says De Blouw.

    The “shareholder first” mentality seems to be the defining piece of American-style Capitalism that ruins companies and will hang us all in the long run.

    Reply
    1. JTMcPhee

      Seems to me shareholder first is a smokescreen for C suite first. Given how they get paid.

      No fixing it. “We” are owned. But:

      “I know I cannot do everything. That does not excuse me from doing what I can.”

      Reply
      1. zer0

        Yeah, they really do not care about the shareholder’s bottom line: take away the performance incentives tied to stock indices, and BAM, no more talk about the shareholders.

        Reply
  3. Wyoming

    I don’t have any direct knowledge of what the article talks about. But I have an interesting story about Solar City installations.

    I was talking to a tradesman working on my house a year or so ago. Just as a way of making conversation I mentioned that I thought it was crazy that Solar City was down the street installing panels on the north facing roof of one of my neighbors houses. He laughed and told me that he had been an installer for Solar City and that installing their panels in non-optimal locations was more the norm than the exception. And that the actual electricity generation from the installations in our town that he had been involved with was far below the rated capability of the panels they were installing. He said he believed that the real purpose of the business was to collect the tax credits and that any electricity generated was a secondary byproduct.

    I paid attention for a time to all the solar panel installations in our area and it was definitely true that having panels facing south was well under 50%.

    Reply
    1. J. Galt

      SolarCity will soon have their day – just like every other dog. The SEC is now investigating them for not sufficiently disclosing the number of customers who canceled their contracts with SolarCity / Tesla.

      Reply
  4. Altandmain

    We need to expose this cult that Silicon Valley types are somehow superior to the rest of business. They are literally just another set of robber barons.

    They are surely exploiting the current job market, but the sad thing is that they aren’t even doing well in terms of quality of workmanship. These panels need to be facing a specific direction – south and the job cannot be rushed. It is possible that west may also be best as it leads to peak energy during the time of highest demand in some areas.

    However the bottom line is the profits and not the best quality of panel or workmanship is the driving factor. I would like to know if this happening with Tesla Motors too. I bet there is a lot more behind the scenes.

    Reply
  5. Kalen

    America was always boom/bust economy starting with land grab from Indians, gold rush etc., the solar energy ploy presented wrongly as a scalable and viable on the long run technology in this particular setting is such a fleeting rush, that was fueled by ZIRP and massive subsidies that ended up in pockets of oligarchy in US and China.

    People are not getting an alternative energy source, they get a new debt and/or leasing death spiral, those who leased a car (rapidly depreciating asset) know what I am talking about, a new debt peonage often not easily dischargeable or not at all. And like in Uber case some benefit temporarily while overall business model is dead, unsustainable.

    The new inconvenient truth, no country club environmentalist dares to utter is that solar power technology in current reincarnation is not a replacement for power system for the future, but a Wall Street boom ploy, a hype that was aimed most of all to sell stocks of solar companies not to save a “planet” since first thing that is needed to save the planet and to shut down the Wall Street and eradicate oligarchic rule.

    The story of workers’ exploitation, stock boom-bust mentality of management and completely taking over of the critical R&D of so-called renewable energy research Institutions by hard core oil men who suppressed breakthrough research and massively de-funded any efforts that would lead to viable and scalable clean, cheap and abundant energy artificially forcing a scarcity as a necessary condition capital of accumulation and concentration in few hands of oligarchs here in the US and China, monopolist of solar panel production at illegal dumping prices to kill US factories.

    When next stage of secular collapse of US mainstream economy comes we will see mass Solar bankruptcies not only companies but the businesses or homeowners who ware enticed to utilize it, but by then old dilapidated energetic system will fail devoid of the ratepayer money to invest (and instead deep in the debt itself) , money that instead went to Wall Street Hedge funds and PE funds.

    While we are desperate for solutions it is this desperation that open us up to lies and exploitation and ultimate theft and destruction all gloriously benefiting Wall Street.

    Reply
      1. Kalen

        I hope you do not ask for “gold rush” link since it is unclear what particularly you are interested since all of that is on Web and even MSM record just do some searches.
        Here is one link to a partial list of dead or dying solar power companies since the hype started over a decade ago at least:
        https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/Rest-in-Peace-The-List-of-Deceased-Solar-Companies-2009-to-2013
        As I wrote the idea of solar energy has applicability but how it is done is actually to destroy it after profit is made and move on while people will be left with carnage called disruptive innovation that disrupts people’s lives more than help.

        Reply
        1. Altandmain

          Yeah thanks.

          Will have to look more into this.

          The story of workers’ exploitation, stock boom-bust mentality of management and completely taking over of the critical R&D of so-called renewable energy research Institutions by hard core oil men who suppressed breakthrough research and massively de-funded any efforts that would lead to viable and scalable clean, cheap and abundant energy artificially forcing a scarcity as a necessary condition capital of accumulation and concentration in few hands of oligarchs here in the US and China, monopolist of solar panel production at illegal dumping prices to kill US factories.

          What I was wondering about is if there was something truly revolutionary that could have addressed many issues with electrical generation.

          Reply
  6. fco

    My experience with Solar City was not good.

    Instead of having the preliminary sales appointment at my home, I insisted that it be done at a another meeting place ( A Starbucks , or Dennys etc). My first test of a cheap shyster of a salesman is to see whether he would offer me a cup of coffee or tea ( he didn’t).
    Secondly, he insisted that both my husband and I were to be present at this meeting, however, he only directed his sales pitch at my husband. Anytime I asked a question , he would look at me with disdain, dismiss the question as irrelevant, and continue his sales pitch while giving me no eye contact.

    He failed to see that when decisions were to be made pertaining my home, I always have the final say.

    Wary of leakage problems, I asked him for the architectural details of how the panels were to be installed. Exasperated, he looked at me and said if I was that interested I should research it up myself.

    What the heck??? Needless to say, I was pissed at my husband for making me attend this farce of a meeting.

    I have to say, all these solar panels that have been installed in the neighborhood is scarring the beauty of the red tiled roofs.

    Elon Musk? He may be brilliant, but I am always suspicious of people who exploit government welfare to help make their billions.

    I’m beginning to sound like a Yelp review:)

    Reply
    1. jrs

      “I have to say, all these solar panels that have been installed in the neighborhood is scarring the beauty of the red tiled roofs.”

      if they actually worked at generating a decent amount of social power it would be worth it, I can’t imagine red tile being ideal for keeping a place cool with less air conditioning either in anywhere that needs it, but maybe it’s actually better than it seems in that regard.

      Reply
      1. fco

        Hey, what about the rude salesperson? No comment on him? lol. But yes, it was pretty superficial of me to complain about the solar panels scarring the look of the neighborhood. But when one lives in a neighborhood with power hungry CC&R committee members who control which plants to plant, which building materials to use, the colors… etc.. you would think solar panels would be a big no no. Our neighborhood is now beginning to look like a patchwork quilt. However, as far as I know, those who have them are happy.

        Reply
  7. Grumpy Engineer

    Ergh. If SolarCity is being a shoddy with their wiring work as they are with the panel installations themselves, they may be introducing fire and shock hazards into people’s homes.

    Wiring quality in PV installations is extremely important. Because the solar cells cannot supply 20X fault current like a utility line can, they cannot reliably blow fuses or trip circuit breakers. Because of this, if the wiring develops a short-circuit, the solar cells will push current through the short all day long. [Well, at least until the sun sets.] If it’s a really low-ohm fault, the current can often freewheel without harmful effect. But if it’s a higher-ohm “barely there” type of fault, heat generation can be significant, and FIRES can result.

    And when the fire department get there to extinguish the fire on your roof and they see PV panels, things go a lot more slowly: http://www.citylab.com/tech/2013/09/why-firefighters-are-scared-solar-power/6854/. Firefighters like to cut power to buildings before they start spraying water and swinging axes, but PV panels cannot be de-energized unless somebody throws an opaque blanket on top of them, a tactic that introduces delay and won’t even be feasible on some buildings.

    The wiring MUST be correct. Routed properly and well-protected at every single place where there might be a sharp edge. Paying incentives to encourage hurried work is the exact wrong approach.

    Reply
    1. Altandmain

      Judging from what I am reading here, they don’t care about the safety of their customer’s homes.

      It is going to take a fire or some other fatal accident before more attention is drawn onto this.

      The sad part is that it might hurt the ethically minded solar panel companies too.

      There needs to be changes to tax policy too. Either overall electricity needs to be maximized or the amount of electricity generated during the peak hours needs to be maximized. People should not be installing subpar panels everywhere for the tax credits.

      Reply
  8. zer0

    As usual, the government money, instead of going to the hands of the scientists and engineers researching solar technology, goes to the likes of Musk and his ilk, keen to get their paws on, literally, free money.

    No surprise. I doubt that these panels are made with any integrity, installed with any thorough checks. Very much like the autopilot feature of Tesla, now the subject to a class-action lawsuit.

    Musk isn’t brilliant. He’s a mixture of luck and ambition, like his twin Buffet. Both have huge connections to top DC figures, both use it to the utmost to never lose a dime on any of their ‘investments’. After all, its easy to win a game you’ve rigged.

    America has already lost its edge in computing. It has long lost its edge in the automotive or any high volume manufacturing. Soon, it will lose its edge in nanotech. Then it will be aerospace when the Chinese & Indians start mass producing their jet engines (with Russian tech) @ 20% the cost of ours.

    Then everyone will wonder how it all happened, and most will point fingers at each other, but the reality is America has lost it for a while now. Once you reward the hallmark sins of capitalism, namely greed & lethargy, its the beginning of the end. Never would an American 30 years ago think that healthcare and education would be the two LARGEST expenses of a family today. It’s a literal anathema. The two things that a government should always ensure have been completely perverted to become the biggest detractors.

    Nowadays, the news is a literal hodge podge of social issues, fake issues, clickbait, glamorized photoshoots, political finger-pointing, etc. It’s so confusing living as a Millenial in these times. My entire generation is floating in a void where illusion and reality coexist in a vomit-like puddle. Very few of us are on the same page and the ones with sense stay as far away from politics as they can.

    Stories like this one, about SolarCity, just show how alike America and China have become. The government is becoming increasingly entrenched in business, and the Musks of the world have us hostage to grueling work for $50k a year, barely enough to subsist on let alone save. The Millenials are doomed. They currently own nothing, and will own nothing for their entire lives. This is how support for communism takes its sinister form: a opposite extreme to a capitalism run amok.

    Reply
    1. Allegorio

      Oh no! Communism, a planned economy where everyone’s needs are taken into consideration based on science, can’t have that. What we need is an economic free for all where the grifters can have free reign and everyone else can go to hell, literally. A century of brain washing by the .001%, communism bad, capitalism good, privatize everything, so that the .001% own everything and the rest nothing!

      Reply
  9. JTMcPhee

    Can one ask whether PV solar is even a tiny ding in the smooth and shiny surface of the juggernaut of consumption that’s carrying us all (except the Elite, of course) into one dystopia or another? Virtue signaling maybe? A lot of the articles I have read extol the ability to load up with electron-powered lights and toys, just the perfect mood and area and task lights and stuff.

    And when the poop hits the propellor, how do you protect your classy solar installation from the stones and bullets of marauders and nihilists?

    Reply

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