See what a tech production surge means for Tesla workers

With few housing options in Storey County, Nevada, new employees are finding alternative living situations.

  • Greg*, an engineer, lives with his girlfriend out of his 18-year-old windshield-less Audi in the Walmart parking lot. After nine years working for the military, Greg knows how to fix anything with wires. At Tesla, he troubleshoots batteries and new cars going on the market. To stay clean, he uses the family restrooms at Walmart. “The employees have been very nice and don’t even say anything to me when I go and use the bathroom for a sink shower or brush my teeth a few times a day,” said Greg.

    Nina Riggio
  • This young woman lives with her father, Dave Ramsey, in a camper in the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony church parking lot. Ramsey works as the night security guard for the church. After working for Tesla as a driver, he decided to go back to a job that didn’t move him around so much, so he could spend more time with his daughter.

    Nina Riggio
  • The Tesla commuter bus route terminates at the Reno, Nevada, Walmart parking lot. Up to 15 people a night sleep in their cars here, and many others find spots throughout Reno.

    Nina Riggio
  • There’s an unspoken rule at Walmart that parking lot residents are allowed to stay for 14 days. But if Gigafactory employees respect the space, they’re usually not bothered. Many don’t even risk drinking a beer.

    Nina Riggio
  • Champion Laundry in downtown Reno, Nevada, is a hot spot for Tesla employees living in their cars. The laundromat offers a free dry cycle and a few shadowed parking spots to pull into and sleep at night.

    Nina Riggio
  • Marty* and his dog Jax have been living in Reno for 14 years, but began living out of Marty’s car this May. At Tesla, Marty checks batteries on a line, but he explains that his job could change any day. “It just depends on how my superiors feel, one day I’m doing batteries, the next I’m driving the forklift, so who knows.”

    Nina Riggio
  • Siren* (her street name) finds comfort with her pillow-pet named “Shnergy” while her boyfriend, Caveman* (also his street name), is working long shifts at Tesla, saving money for their dream of living off the land in Oregon. The couple both fight bouts of addiction in addition to fighting each other. “At some point the abuse just feels like home,” she said as she hugged Shnergy underneath their dented Toyota Corolla, the windshield broken by Caveman’s throwing knives.

    Nina Riggio
  • For two years Tasha* and her partner, Kent*, and their two pit bulls have called their Dodge SUV home. They worked for a short time as construction workers at Tesla’s Gigafactory. But the safety goggles that the job required Kent to wear didn't fit over his large glasses, so he left. Tasha shortly followed. After he quit, they got in a fight and Kent sprayed Tasha with bear mace. In the week and a half since, she hasn't showered.

    Nina Riggio
  • “I call her ugly,” B*. says as he motions to his 1980s home on wheels, which he got from a “God-fearing-man” last December. B. is a street guitarist who recently left his job as a plumber at the Tesla factory. He says “Ugly” is the best thing that ever happened to him because it allowed him to keep pursuing music in Reno.

    Nina Riggio
  • After B. left Tesla, he began working on a gospel album.

    Nina Riggio
  • B. used his experience at the Tesla factory to learn about batteries and is now helping people experiencing homelessness fix battery-powered items, including cell phones and stereos. He even uses batteries to power guitar amps for himself and other street musicians.

    Nina Riggio

 

*First names or initials only have been used to protect the privacy of individuals targeted by the stigmas around homelessness and drug use.

A sprawling expanse dotted by wild horse herds, Storey County, Nevada, once known for its gold and silver mining and, more recently, its infamous Mustang Ranch brothel, has a new distinction: It’s home to the biggest cluster of corporate manufacturing centers in the world.

In the late ’90s, Storey County was almost broke. Then developers bought a huge parcel with the idea of luring innovative manufacturing companies. Through a package, the state attracted Tesla and their new Gigafactory. In turn, the rural county saw their taxable sales skyrocket from $110 million in 2006 to in 2017. 

Today, Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center covers more than half the county. Between staffing the plant and the construction jobs to build it, . The county unemployment rate is nearly 5 percent as of this April, down from about 12 percent 5 years before.

Tesla Gigafactory is responsible for a significant part of that growth. Tesla founder and CEO he plans to employ as many as 20,000 workers there, five times the 2010 population of the county.

But while the job prospects are hot, housing for workers is another issue. To attract talent to the area, to new workers for two weeks, to give them a chance to find something permanent. But then, they’re on their own.

According to company reports, the average Tesla employee earns a decent wage — just above $37 an hour — but that figure includes senior managers and engineers, likely inflating the statistic. Glassdoor, a job posting website that gathers employee data, reports entry-level wages to be about $15 an hour.

It’s difficult to know how Storey County newcomers fit into the mix, and because Tesla has expanded the work force and incoming population of Storey County so dramatically, the lack of new housing development has taken a toll — particularly on low-ranking Tesla employees. The counted just 2,000 residences in the county, 85 percent of which are occupied by homeowners. And, to make matters worse, the county doesn’t plan for further development; just 10 building permits were issued for homes in 2017. The shortage has left newly arrived Tesla employees with few options. At one point, Tesla had , but the trailers were removed after too many workers started living in them long term.

The Walmart parking lot, a scene of scattered cars and RVs near the end of the commuter bus route, has become a de-facto home for many. After spending shifts that can last up to 12 hours building batteries and electric drive units for Tesla vehicles, employees sneak into the nearby McDonald’s to clean up, before retiring to their cars, parked between lamp posts, for a little shut eye.

Luna Anna Archey, NewTowncarShare News associate photo editor