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Know the West

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.


*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 $1.25 billion tax incentive 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 $1.6 billion in 2017. 

Today, Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center covers more than half the county. Between staffing the plant and the construction jobs to build it, county employment is pushing 15,000 jobs, up from just over 3,000 in 2012. 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 Elon Musk announced 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, Tesla offers temporary housing 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 2016 census 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 sleep trailers for workers, 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, High Country News associate photo editor