Companies Tracking Employees' Every Move

Memo to American workers: Many big employers admit they are watching you with cameras, reading your e-mails or listening in on your phone calls. And now a growing number have gone a step further.

At the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center, pediatric nurses are required to wear electronic locators that monitor them wherever they go.

“Every time a nurse goes into a room, it records that,” says Inez Wiegig, head nurse at the center.

Some employees think the monitor, which also records how long a person stays in a room, makes their job easier.

“Things that need to be accomplished right away, you can actually find the nurse and get those things accomplished,” says nurse Nicole Hodgebloom.

Helps Increase Productivity

The city of Aurora, Colo., has put tracking devices inside its sweepers and snowplows to make sure they’re being used as taxpayers intended. Supervisor and project engineer Lynn Center says it’s working.

“We have seen an overall increase in productivity for our units, about 15 percent, just by having the units in the vehicles,” Center says.

And truck driver Maria Coleman is also under constant surveillance while working. She says she doesn’t mind it, but she doesn’t kid herself about it, either.

“It’s Big Brother. It’s watching you, making sure you do what you’re supposed to do, but if you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing then you shouldn’t have a problem,” Coleman says.

All sorts of industries are using tracking devices, among them security guards, casinos and restaurant workers and miners — often with no problem.

Invasion of Privacy?

But lots of employees and civil libertarians do have a problem with workers being asked to wear electronic tracking devices, especially devices originally designed for felons on parole. They say the technology is easily abused.

Officials at Wyckoff Hospital in Brooklyn say they require nurses to wear personal tracking devices to improve care, but the local nursing representative calls the practice a clear violation of privacy.

“These badges are worn every place they go,” says Christine Terranova of the New York State Nurses Association. “If they take their break, if they go to the bathroom, it reads out on a computer-generated real-time screen and it’s logged.”

The nurse’s union filed a grievance against wearing the sensors but lost that battle in arbitration.

The pressure on nurses to account for every moment is a threat to patients, too, says Terranova.

“[Patients are] crying cause they just found out they have cancer, and I can’t stop for five minutes and hold their hand because I know the schematic is going to say that I spent 35 minutes there instead of five,” says Terranova.

The American workplace is trading privacy for efficiency, say employee advocates, and the costs are high.

“It can stifle all kinds of activity,” says Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the National Workrights Institute. “It can stifle union organizing, it can stifle whistle-blower activity, not to mention the lack of privacy that employees will have when they have absolutely no ability to have some individual time for themselves.”

An increasing number of workers have no choice but to wear the devices. In the hospital industry alone, 55,000 employees now wear an electronic monitor as a condition of employment. That means the cost of objecting to it may be their job.

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