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SpaceX probed by California over sex bias, retaliation claims

Illustration shows SpaceX logo and Elon Musk silhouette

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) - SpaceX is being investigated by a California civil rights agency over allegations that the rocket and satellite maker and CEO Elon Musk have failed to address rampant discrimination and sexual harassment against female employees.

The California Civil Rights Department notified SpaceX of the claims in January, several months after a group of engineers filed complaints with the agency claiming they were fired for criticizing SpaceX and Musk in a letter to company executives, their lawyer Laurie Burgess said Tuesday.

Those same workers are the focus of a case that the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has filed against SpaceX, accusing the company of violating federal labor law by firing them. The company has denied wrongdoing and, in turn, sued the agency seeking to block its lawsuit from moving forward, claiming that NLRB board members and in-house judges were not properly appointed under the U.S. Constitution.

Six of the California complaints were obtained by Reuters. In them, the engineers said that Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX routinely passes women over for jobs and promotions in favor of men, pays female workers less than men who do comparable work, tolerates sexual comments and other harassment, and retaliated against the engineers and other workers for complaining.

"SpaceX tolerates, condones and permits a work environment that is hostile to female employees and to employees of all genders who object to discrimination and harassment," the workers said in the complaints.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The California agency, which is prohibited by state law from commenting on pending investigations, did not respond to a request for comment.

Burgess said the complaints were meant to vindicate the engineers and create a safer workplace for all SpaceX employees.

"SpaceX insists that nothing is more important than its mission to get to Mars; our clients shared that vision but were fired for daring to demand that SpaceX comply with basic civil rights while doing so," Burgess said.

SpaceX has until later this month to respond to the California civil rights agency, as first reported by Bloomberg. It will then decide whether to dismiss the allegations or attempt to broker a settlement. If no deal is reached, the agency could then give the workers permission to sue or file its own lawsuit.

The engineers in their 2022 letter called Musk a "distraction and embarrassment" and criticized his response to sexual harassment allegations by a flight attendant. The letter also highlighted a series of social media posts that Musk had made since 2020, many of which were sexually suggestive.

The California and U.S. labor board cases are the latest to accuse companies run by Musk of widespread violations of labor and employment laws.

The California agency in 2022 sued electric car maker Tesla, where Musk is CEO, for alleged harassment and discrimination against Black factory workers. Tesla has said it does not tolerate discrimination and unsuccessfully challenged the agency's process for investigating complaints and deciding whether to sue.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission made similar claims against Tesla in a lawsuit filed last September.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York, Editing by Will Dunham and Alexia Garamfalvi)