Judge Orders SpaceX to Turn Over Documents Related to Employment Discrimination Investigation

A federal judge has ruled that SpaceX has 21 days to turn documents related to employment over to the Department of Justice, which is investigating allegations that the company discriminated against non-U.S. citizens in its employment practices. SpaceX had previously objected to a magistrate judge’s similar ruling, saying that the court failed to consider whether the Department of Justice’s probes had cast too wide a net in relation to the original complaint.

The Department of Justice claims that SpaceX has stonewalled efforts to investigate the discrimination allegations. The company has already provided a Form I-9 document containing information about employees dating back to July 2019 but failed to turn over copies of employees’ identifying documents such as passports, Social Security cards, and driver’s licenses.

Although SpaceX has not said so aloud, it might not be unreasonable to assume that it is concerned about possible violations of the privacy of its employees, considering how recently Elon Musk’s tax returns were leaked to the press by an as-yet-unknown government employee or contractor. The leaking of employees’ information like Social Security numbers and addresses could open them up to anything from harassment by anonymous “activists” to identity theft.

Without much context, this could have easily come across as a case of SpaceX being caught between a rock and a hard place. It has several launch contracts with the Department of Defense and branches of the military, which have strict regulations requiring the employment of non-U.S. citizens in positions that could give them access to classified information such as the details of payloads being launched. According to US International Traffic in Arms Regulations, non-U.S. citizens can only work for a company like SpaceX if they have a green card.

However, the original complainant says that he applied for a position related to SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellite constellation in March 2020 but was turned down after interviewers asked questions about his dual Austrian-Canadian citizenship. Although SpaceX may not be against the government becoming a Starlink customer like everybody else and is currently working with the United States’ FCC to develop broadband access for rural areas, Starlink is not directly a military project. He filed a complaint with the Department of Justice’s Office of Immigrant and Employee Rights (IER) in May 2020.

SpaceX claims that the interviewers were simply unimpressed by the applicant’s answers to their questions and simply chose not to fill the role that he had applied for. However, the IER says that the interviewer wrote on a document related to the application, “Not a US citizen which is going to make it hard.”

It also claims that the IER unduly escalated the investigation to demand documents related to everybody from baristas working at food stands in SpaceX facilities to rocket engineers. SpaceX says that it has already spent more than 1,000 man-hours complying with the IER’s requests, which it called “the very definition of government overreach” with “the flimsiest of justifications.”

Neither SpaceX nor Elon Musk has issued a statement on the federal judge’s ruling or whether the company plans to appeal despite Musk’s occasionally sharp temper with regulators whom he often sees as getting in his way.