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Snooping on employees is scrutinized

Workers from a variety of industries have urged a Senate subcommittee to restrict secret electronic monitoring of employees on the job and to prohibit such snooping during work breaks and off-hours.

The Senate Labor Employment and Productivity Subcommittee on Tuesday heard witnesses describe both the positive and negative aspects of having a supervisor listen in on telephone calls and watch the employees on hidden cameras.

"The Privacy for Consumers and Workers Act would not prohibit electronic monitoring from ever being used; it does say it should not be abused," said subcommittee Chairman Paul Simon, D-Ill. "Employees should not be forced to give up their freedom, dignity, or sacrifice their health when they go to work."

The bill would give workers a right to know when they are being monitored. It would prohibit electronic or video monitoring by employers in bathrooms, locker rooms or other dressing areas. Monitoring of telephone calls and electronic computer systems would be permitted on a sliding scale based on the amount of time a worker has been employed. For the first 60 days, a worker could be monitored without notice. After that, no monitoring could occur without advance warning. Exceptions would be allowed if an individual was suspected of breaking a law.

Witnesses at Tuesday's hearing ranged from people who had been monitored without their knowledge to those who were actually doing the monitoring.

In August 1992, Franklin Ettienne, a Haitian immigrant, was asked by his union to watch a videotape that had secretly been made of him in the men's locker room in a Boston hotel. The tape showed Ettienne studying and his male co-workers dressing and undressing.

"I couldn't believe what I saw. I was very angry," Ettienne said. "I felt that the Sheraton Hotel had taken something away from me. I began to feel nervous and under stress."

The stress that Ettienne felt is not uncommon. According to a 1990 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, stress is the symptom of more serious medical problems often reported by employees who were subject to electronic monitoring.

Charles Piller, a senior associate editor at Macworld magazine, testified about a report that his company recently conducted on "electronic eavesdropping." The study found that of the 301 participating companies, 21.6 percent said that the company searched employee files. These files included: electronic work files (73.8 percent), E-mail (41.5 percent), network messages (27.7 percent) and voice mail (15.4 percent).

Only 30.8 percent of the companies warned their employees that monitoring was under way.

An official of MCI Communications Corp. told the subcommittee that his company considers monitoring vital to ensuring quality service for customers.

"Telephone service observation, which involves listening to calls being made or received by an employee to monitor the quality of service provided by the employee, is an essential part of MCI's customer-service program," said John Gerdelman, a senior vice president of consumer markets.

He insisted that monitoring is used only as a "coaching" tool to help the employee develop and improve call-handling performance.

"Even experienced customer-service professionals are monitored periodically to assess the quality of their interactions with MCI customers," Gerdelman said.