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Increasingly, Big Brother is your employer

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In an era of company-issued GPS-enabled smartphones and tablets, employers now have the technology to track workers' every move from sunrise to bedtime.

Companies say tracking employees can be good for business. For example, it can help improve safety — ensuring truckers drive safely and get the rest required by law. Tracking can also make companies more productive and competitive by monitoring performance and productivity.

Etta Epps, a UPS delivery driver for 10 years, said she is keenly aware of the shipping giant's surveillance of her actions through GPS and sensors in her truck.

"You're so conscious every day of trying not to do this, or not to do that, because you know you're being monitored," Epps said.

But the capabilities also mean employers can also easily keep tabs on anyone from sales staff to office workers whether at work or at home.

That raises questions for the 21st century working world: How much data should companies collect on where their employees are, and how should they use it? What about for an office employee or manager who handles work-related business and calls on nights and weekends, or has flexible hours and works from home? What should the parameters be, who sets the limits, and when and where is an employee entitled to privacy?

There are few laws and court cases to help companies or workers understand the limits, leaving some gray areas for protection of employees' privacy.

Some companies say in their employee handbooks or policies that they have the right to conduct certain types of employee monitoring. That makes it less likely that monitoring could be considered an invasion of privacy.

"In general, there's not a lot of privacy in the workplace in the United States," said Marisa Pagnattaro, a professor of legal studies at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business.

Epps, the UPS driver, feels she has little privacy at work. She drives for a company that is among the most avid users of technology to track vehicles and drivers.

UPS uses "telematics," with more than 200 sensors on each vehicle that track not just location and engine status, but also speed, idling time, hard braking, how many times drivers put the truck in reverse and when they are wearing their seat belts.

Epps said she's been "spoken to" about picking up her work handheld device while her truck is in motion, or the truck's bulkhead door popping open while she is driving.

"Sometimes you forget — you slip," Epps said.

"They want to track everything we do. Nobody wants to be monitored. But it's beyond our control. There's nothing we can do about it."

The company says the data helps improve safety, vehicle maintenance and employee training.

The use of telematics was discussed extensively in the most recent UPS contract talks, resulting in language restricting the company from firing workers solely based on telematics data.

Other types of businesses may monitor workers, such as sales people, through GPS on company-issued vehicles.

And new technologies are coming out, such as one that embeds computer chips in employee badges that can track a worker's movement in the office. A Boston startup called Robin in July raised $1.4 million for its software that can sense employees walking into a room via their smartphones and Bluetooth technology. The upside to such tracking is that it creates a "smart office," for instance that can update screens for a worker who walks into a room or help with automatic conference room bookings.

More commonly used technologies are company-issued smartphones or tablets, which also are capable of tracking locations. What's more, because people commonly carry those smartphones home with them and out around town, lines are blurring between work and personal life.

"The technology is useful," said Tracy Moon, an Atlanta employment attorney and partner with Fisher & Phillips. But "sometimes there's no clear direction on what is lawful."

Moon said most states do not have laws that apply to tracking workers, so the main legal protection is employees' expectation of privacy, though past cases have shown companies have broad license to monitor employees.

Invasion of privacy isn't necessarily the biggest concern for employers.

A bigger risk could be the chance for a discrimination lawsuit based on collected data that reveals, for example, an employee's religion by logging their attendance at a mosque, synagogue or church.

Moon also warned against companies using technology to single out an employee — such as to prove a suspicion about someone slacking off. Before firing someone, companies should ensure other employees in similar situations were treated the same way.

"A company has to look at the other side of it: 'Yeah, this will do great things for us, but we have to think about the impact it would have on employees. And maybe some of the information we will receive is beyond what we need.' "

Increasingly, Big Brother is your employer 08/24/14 [Last modified: Sunday, August 24, 2014 9:09pm]

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