Panasonic resumes work at Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory, but not in New York

Panasonic has resumed its work making battery cells at Tesla’s Gigafactory outside Reno, Nevada, the company tells The Verge. But Panasonic will not return to work at Tesla’s Buffalo, New York solar panel factory this weekend as planned.

Mark Shima, president of Panasonic Solar North America (PSNA), has told employees in emails obtained by The Verge that the company has to delay bringing workers back because the region the factory is in, Western New York, did not meet New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new criteria for reopening. “We will NOT restart manufacturing on this Saturday, May 16th,” Shima wrote in an email sent Thursday. “The new target date depends on the COVID-19 situation of Erie County and it will be announced from me in next several days.”

Western New York has hit five of the seven criteria. But in order to meet the requirements, the region needs a 14-day decline in net hospitalizations or to have an average of less than 15 new hospitalizations a day for three days. Additionally, there needs to be 14 days of decline in hospital deaths — or, a three day average of fewer than five deaths. Because Western New York hasn’t met these criteria, the stay-home order has been extended to May 28. If the region meets those final two criteria before then, Panasonic could be allowed to bring workers back.

Panasonic shut down operations at the New York factory in mid-March, and one of its employees later tested positive for COVID-19, as The Verge previously reported. PSNA spent the last few weeks preparing its workers to return to the Buffalo factory, where its employees work alongside Tesla’s making solar panels and its solar roof. The company even told workers that it petitioned the governor’s office to allow PSNA to open back up early, according to one of the emails — this effort seems to have been in vain. Shima told employees in a May 9th email that the company is planning to space employees six feet apart, provide masks and wipes, and put transparent shields on the production line.

Panasonic announced earlier this year that it’s ending its relationship with Tesla at the New York factory. It had previously said it would only employ workers there through the end of May, and planned to fully exit the factory by September. One current employee told The Verge that PSNA has at least a month’s worth of work left to do inside the factory.

A spokesperson for Panasonic North America declined to comment on the delay at the New York factory. Panasonic has been in a “steady ramp up” at the Nevada Gigafactory, the spokesperson said. Tesla has resumed operations there as well, as The Verge first reported earlier this week. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak recently announced the first phase of the state’s plan to allow some businesses to reopen, which makes certain measures like face masks mandatory.

“We are in regular communication with local and state officials, are following the state guidance for essential businesses, and have enacted robust health and safety protocol that include social distancing and special cleaning practices,” the Panasonic spokesperson said, referring to resuming work at its Nevada plant.

It’s unclear if Tesla has resumed operations at the New York factory; the company did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment. Tesla recently reopened its Fremont, California car factory in violation of the local public health order there, before ultimately reaching an agreement with officials on a plan to get back to full production. Tesla CEO has called the shelter-in-place orders that are meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus “fascist,” and even said this week that he’d be willing to get arrested for violating the one in California as long as no other employees were arrested with him.

Shima struck a different tone in his email to employees on Thursday. “Please remember that one of the important policy of PSNA is compliance,” he wrote. “PSNA will always follow the laws and official direction from State and local government, even if those are different from our intention for PSNA’s business activities.”

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