SpaceX Discriminated Against Refugees in Hiring, DOJ Says

Elon Musk’s SpaceX discriminated for years against refugees and people granted political asylum who were seeking jobs at the rocket company, the US Justice Department said in a lawsuit.

(Bloomberg) — Elon Musk’s SpaceX discriminated for years against refugees and people granted political asylum who were seeking jobs at the rocket company, the US Justice Department said in a lawsuit. 

The lawsuit filed on Thursday alleges that SpaceX routinely discouraged people granted asylum and refugees from applying and refused to hire or consider them because of their citizenship status, in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act, from at least September 2018 to May 2022.

Musk on Thursday reiterated in a tweet what he’s said in the past — that SpaceX was barred from hiring foreign nationals because of restrictions placed on sharing of information related to rocket technology.

Among its allegations, the Justice Department said SpaceX wrongly claimed in job postings under federal export control laws that it could only hire US citizens and green card holders. Such laws do not impose those hiring restrictions, the agency said.  

Origins of Probe

The Justice Department has been investigating SpaceX’s hiring practices since 2020, after receiving a complaint from an individual who claimed he wasn’t hired by SpaceX after revealing during an interview that he was not US citizen nor a lawful permanent resident. In June 2021, a federal judge ruled that SpaceX had to turn over its hiring records as part of the probe.

“SpaceX cannot afford to artificially limit the talent pool from which it hires by discriminating against anyone on the basis of their citizenship,” attorneys for SpaceX wrote in a 2021 legal filing related to the Justice Department’s investigation.

The complaint, filed with a Justice Department administrative judge in Washington, is the latest in a series of high-profile cases brought by the department over discriminatory job postings and other allegations.  

In September, Walmart Inc., CarMax Inc., Capital One Financial Corp. and Axis Analytics LLC settled with the Justice Department after similar claims over discriminatory job postings against non-US citizens, the agency said. In June, auditing firm KPMG LLP and 15 other employers also settled with the agency over hiring bias in postings on a college career services website. The agency said it collected $1.1 million from the 20 employers in civil penalties.

Additional Legal Hurdles

Musk’s electric-vehicle maker Tesla Inc. has faced complaints from Black workers that managers at its Fremont, California, factory turned a blind eye to the commonplace use of racial slurs on the assembly line and were slow to clean up graffiti with swastikas and other hate symbols scrawled in common areas.

In a separate case, Tesla is fighting claims by California’s civil rights department that hundreds of African American workers at its factory were subject to mistreatment, including harassment, unequal pay and retaliation.

SpaceX separately faces a handful of lawsuits by former employees in recent years alleging discrimination on the basis of age, race and disability. Earlier this month, a former SpaceX technician sued the company in a California state court claiming he experienced physical disability harassment and retaliation in the workplace. 

In Thursday’s SpaceX suit, the US is asking a court to award back pay and unspecified civil penalties for people granted asylum and refugees who it alleges were denied employment at SpaceX, according to the complaint.

“Our investigation also found that SpaceX recruiters and high-level officials took actions that actively discouraged asylees and refugees from seeking work opportunities at the company,” Kristen Clarke, the Justice Department’s head of civil rights, said in a statement. 

Once hired, people granted asylum and refugees can access export-controlled information and materials without additional government approval, the same as US citizens and green card holders, the department added. The Justice Department identifies asylees and refugees in its complaint as people who have been granted asylum or refugee status, agency spokesperson Aryele Bradford said.

The lawsuit alleges that SpaceX discriminated against people granted asylum and refugees based on citizenship status at multiple stages of the hiring process. 

For example, in 2020, a SpaceX engineer posted a job announcement in a career fair chat forum at the Georgia Institute of Technology that stated: “Sadly must be a US citizen” to apply, even though the position did not require US citizenship, the complaint says.

(Updates with Elon Musk tweet.)

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