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Tracking Remote Employees: How To Not Cross The Line

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With the COVID-19 on the current agenda, the offline work seems to be far away. However, remote work is trending now because more and more businesses realize which benefits it drives. However, hiring top talent from different parts of the country and saving from rent come with the liabilities of remote working employment law.

One of the frequent questions that entrepreneurs discuss during a labor law free consultation is tracking remote employees. It’s only logical that they want to know how much time their workers dedicate to tasks daily. But what about the related remote work legal issues?

Tracking Remote Employees: Definition and Advantages

Basically, tracking remote employees implies the usage of special software that monitors the activity of a worker during the day. It tracks the amount of working time and presents them in an Excel or CSV file.

However, some programs offer much more. They can monitor keystrokes. Record videos or make screenshots, track the location, and assess productivity. Thus, employers can know almost everything about their remote employees.

Since Gartner claims that almost 80% of the businesses will monitor the employees with tracking software by the end of 2020, we can conclude that they see a number of benefits. Among them can be:

  • Privacy and Security: Remote work increases the risk of a cyberattack. Some of them can be even initiated from inside since employees can use personal devices and store valuable data on cloud storage. Monitoring their activities allows detecting an unreliable employee timely.
  • Improved Productivity: Its human nature to be more productive when being under control. Therefore, workers are likely to be more diligent working remotely if they are monitored.
  • Tracking of Assets: In case a business provides hardware for remote employees, it’ll want to locate it for the safety measures. Tracking applications show the data.

A Sustainable Approach to Tracking Remote Employees

Not all employees can be satisfied with the tracking apps being installed on the working computer. Therefore, it’s vital to prepare them, preferably at the hiring stage. But before we move to the educational and psychological part, let’s cover some legal issues.

The legal aspect of employee tracking highly depends on the implementation. The answer that will solve all the problems is a remote work policy that will state how the management can use the collected data. The policy should be clarified, signed and accepted at the recruitment. If you implement it when the company already employs workers, they also need to sign the acceptance.

As for the psychological part, it’s essential to adhere to several principles in implementing a tracking system:

  1. Gradual percolation
  2. Systematic education on what benefits the tracking system drives
  3. Communication with every employee to resolve any issues
  4. Periodic training in order to reinforce the initial message.

As you can see, implementing a tracking software is pretty easy. You just have to prepare a special policy and communicate it to the employees. Would you use tracking software for your remote employees?

About the Author: Yuriy Moshes is the CEO of Moshes Law and attorney with broad expertise. He has two bachelor’s degrees. Being an experienced expert, he is considered one of the most in-demand specialists in the employment law field. Apart from that, he provides labor law attorney free consultation for everyone who faces discrimination in the workplace.


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Employers Are Spying on Remote Workers in Their Homes

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The future of work is here, ush­ered in by a glob­al pan­dem­ic. But is it turn­ing employ­ment into a Work­ers’ Par­adise of work­ing at home? Or more of a Big Broth­er panopticon?

Dis­turb­ing increas­es in use of dig­i­tal sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies by employ­ers to mon­i­tor their remote work­ers is rais­ing alarm bells. With the num­ber of remote work­ers surg­ing as a result of the pan­dem­ic—42% of U.S. work­ers are now doing their jobs from their kitchens, liv­ing rooms and home offices—a num­ber of employ­ers have begun requir­ing their work­ers to down­load spy­ing soft­ware to their lap­tops and smart­phones. The goal is for busi­ness­es to mon­i­tor what their remote employ­ees do all day, and to track job per­for­mance and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and reduce so-called “cyber-slack­ing.”

Busi­ness soft­ware prod­ucts from Hub­staff, which tracks a worker’s mouse move­ments, key­board strokes, web­pages vis­it­ed, email, file trans­fers and appli­ca­tions used, are surg­ing in sales. So are sales for TSheets, which work­ers down­load to their smart­phones so that employ­ers can track their loca­tion. Anoth­er prod­uct, called Time Doc­tor, down­loads videos of employ­ees’ screens and uses a com­put­er’s web­cam, which can take a pic­ture of the employ­ee every 10 min­utes. As one work­er who was sub­ject­ed to Time Doc­tor told NPR, “If you’re idle for a few min­utes, if you go to the bath­room or to the kitchen, a pop-up comes up and says, ‘You have 60 sec­onds to start work­ing again or we’re going to pause your time.’” 

Anoth­er sys­tem, Inter­Guard, can be secret­ly installed on work­ers’ com­put­ers. As the Wash­ing­ton Post notes, it “cre­ates a minute-by-minute time­line of every app and web­site they view, cat­e­go­riz­ing each as ‘pro­duc­tive’ or ‘unpro­duc­tive’ and rank­ing work­ers by their ‘pro­duc­tiv­i­ty score.’” Oth­er employ­ers are using a low­er tech approach, requir­ing work­ers to stay on a tele­con­fer­ence like Zoom all day so they can be con­tin­u­al­ly watched.

Since the Covid-19 out­break, one sur­veil­lance com­pa­ny, Aware­ness Tech­nolo­gies, Inc., says it has seen its sales triple. Exec­u­tives at Hub­staff and Tera­mind also say demand for their com­pa­nies’ mon­i­tor­ing prod­ucts have tripled. One web­site show­ing “Employ­ee Mon­i­tor­ing Soft­ware in the USA” lists near­ly 70 com­pa­nies with prod­ucts for sale.

Out­dat­ed laws keep it legal

Online sur­veil­lance of employ­ees may seem inva­sive and creepy, but it is a legal prac­tice in the Unit­ed States. Indi­vid­ual state laws vary over whether com­pa­nies must inform work­ers that they’re using track­ing soft­ware, but in real­i­ty “when you’re on your office com­put­er, you have no pri­va­cy at all,” Lewis Malt­by, pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Workrights Insti­tute, told CNBC. “Any­thing and every­thing you do is prob­a­bly mon­i­tored by your boss.”

Cur­rent laws are vast­ly out­dat­ed, as they are based on the Elec­tron­ic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Pri­va­cy Act of 1986, when the pri­ma­ry form of elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion was the tele­phone. That was a dis­tant time when desk­top com­put­ers were first becom­ing pop­u­lar, and smart phones were not yet a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye.

And now, in response to the coro­n­avirus out­break, com­pa­nies such as Price­wa­ter­house­C­oop­ers (PwC) and Sales­force have devel­oped intru­sive appli­ca­tions that enable com­pa­nies to con­tin­u­ous­ly track the health sta­tus of their employ­ees. Often they include a sys­tem for track­ing con­tacts between employ­ees with­in an office, and a mobile app for col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion about their health sta­tus. A num­ber of large U.S. employ­ers, includ­ing Ama­zonWal­mart, Home Depot and Star­bucks, are tak­ing the tem­per­a­tures of their employ­ees before they are allowed to work. Cer­tain­ly, employ­ers have a legit­i­mate need to col­lect the nec­es­sary data to safe­guard their work­places, espe­cial­ly in response to a pan­dem­ic. But what is the appro­pri­ate lev­el of “health intru­sion”? How vol­un­tary is the par­tic­i­pa­tion of work­ers, and who gets to decide? 

The real­i­ty of this con­stant Big Broth­er dig­i­tal spy­ing in people’s homes is that dozens of remote work­ers are start­ing to com­plain that they feel burned out by this pres­sure. A recent Fish­bowl sur­vey of major com­pa­nies’ employ­ees found that three-quar­ters of those polled were opposed to using an app or device that allows their com­pa­ny to trace their con­tacts with col­leagues. Yet many fear they will be brand­ed as trou­ble­mak­ers or lose their jobs if they speak out. And since remote work­ers hard­ly see each oth­er—and increas­ing­ly may not even know many of their cowork­ers—these fac­tors will make labor orga­niz­ing and col­lec­tive work­er empow­er­ment increas­ing­ly challenging.

U.S. labor unions have been slow to advo­cate for updat­ing these out­dat­ed laws. One union, the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio, and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, has been work­ing to blunt the worst of the abus­es. Labor-friend­ly media have been miss­ing this sto­ry as well. Not only should unions advo­cate to update the laws and lim­it dig­i­tal spy­ing, but why not also demand that home-based work­ers be com­pen­sat­ed by employ­ers for use of their house, util­i­ties and the inter­net? And that the employ­er remains respon­si­ble to pro­vide equip­ment and a safe work­place, even in the home?

Remote work­force growth—the new normal?

As the num­ber of remote work­ers ris­es, con­cerns are grow­ing among labor advo­cates that this is quick­ly becom­ing the “new nor­mal.” One sur­vey found that 74% of com­pa­nies intend to keep some pro­por­tion of their work­force on a per­ma­nent remote sta­tus, with near­ly a quar­ter of respon­dents say­ing they will move at least 20% of their on-site employ­ees to per­ma­nent remote sta­tus. Google, whose par­ent com­pa­ny is Alpha­bet, recent­ly announced it will keep its 200,000 full-time and con­tract employ­ees home until at least July 2021, and Mark Zucker­berg pre­dicts half of Face­book employ­ees will work from home over the next decade. HUB Inter­na­tion­al, a glob­al insur­ance bro­ker­age, has shift­ed 90% of its 12,000-plus employ­ees to remote sta­tus. Teleper­for­mance, the world’s largest call-cen­ter com­pa­ny, esti­mates that near­ly 155,000 of its employ­ees—almost half its glob­al work­force—will not return to a phys­i­cal work­site. A sur­vey of firms bythe Sur­vey of Busi­ness Uncer­tain­ty found that the share of work­ing days spent at home is expect­ed to increase four­fold from a pre-Covid-19 lev­el of 5 per­cent to 20%. Post-pan­dem­ic, many employ­ees will work from home one to three days a week, and come into the office the rest of the time.

But not all at-home work­ers are cre­at­ed equal. Stan­ford econ­o­mist Nicholas Bloom says “This is gen­er­at­ing a time bomb for inequal­i­ty.” More edu­cat­ed, high­er-earn­ing employ­ees are far more like­ly to work from home, con­tin­u­ing to get paid and advance their careers. But many oth­ers are unable to work from home, often because they lack suit­able space or fast, afford­able inter­net con­nec­tions, and they are being left behind. “They face bleak prospects if their skills and work expe­ri­ence erode dur­ing an extend­ed shut­down and beyond,” says Bloom.

The future of work has become more uncer­tain than ever. In this “brave new world,” labor unions and advo­cates must ensure that the pan­dem­ic is not mis­used by busi­ness­es as an excuse to wors­en con­di­tions for employ­ees who work out of the office. It is easy to imag­ine how the lines between ‘remote’ work and ‘plat­form’ work could blur, lead­ing to more ‘Uber­iza­tion’ as work devolves into ‘inde­pen­dent’ con­tracts, bogus self-employ­ment and ‘pay-by-project’ arrange­ments that can be eas­i­ly out­sourced to remote (and low­er cost) destinations.

Work­er advo­cates must push for a strong and mod­ern legal data pro­tec­tion frame­work. And that should include an effec­tive enforce­ment sys­tem against pri­va­cy abuse that cre­ates a dis­in­cen­tive against ille­gal spy­ing behav­ior. Remote work should not become a down­ward slide toward a Big Broth­er panop­ti­con that pen­e­trates into soci­ety ever more deeply, includ­ing into our homes.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Hill is the author of Raw Deal: How the “Uber Econ­o­my” and Run­away Cap­i­tal­ism Are Screw­ing Amer­i­can Work­ers and The Start­up Illu­sion: How the Inter­net Econ­o­my Threat­ens Our Wel­fare.


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American Workers Have Lost Control of Their Time. It’s Time To Take It Back.

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It wasn’t sup­posed to be like this, accord­ing to John May­nard Keynes. In 1930, the econ­o­mist pre­dict­ed that his grand­chil­dren would be work­ing 15-hour work weeks. Tech­nol­o­gy would have advanced to the point two gen­er­a­tions after his own that work­ers’ aver­age time on the job would be a frac­tion of what it once was. We would all be strug­gling to fig­ure out what to do with so much free time.

The oppo­site has turned out to be true. Instead of being freed from the tyran­ny of the clock, Amer­i­can work­ers are more shack­led to it than ever, work­ing longer hours, being sub­ject­ed to errat­ic sched­ules, fig­ur­ing out how to work more just to make ends meet, and watch­ing an increas­ing amount of con­trol over their lives slip into the boss­es’ hands.

In his new book Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the Amer­i­can Dream (Basic, Sep­tem­ber 2020), Jamie McCal­lum, a pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege, exam­ines why and how U.S. work­ers are more tied to the clock than ever, the dam­age this has meant for work­ers’ well-being, and what an agen­da for reclaim that time could look like. We spoke by phone in Sep­tem­ber. This inter­view has been edit­ed for length and clarity. 

Explain the over­all sit­u­a­tion for the Amer­i­can work­er and time on the job.

There are three dimen­sions of it. One, the rise of over­all hours worked since the 1970s. Two, an increase in volatil­i­ty and the unpre­dictable nature of work­ers’ sched­ules. Three, work­ers not hav­ing enough hours to make ends meet. 

That’s a con­tra­dic­to­ry sit­u­a­tion, no? Peo­ple are work­ing too many hours, but also not enough hours. There’s a lack of con­trol of peo­ple’s over­all time both at work and when they’re not at work. Either way, peo­ple are sub­ject­ed to a tyran­ny of the clock.

That’s right. Peo­ple often ask me about this one sta­tis­tic that work time has increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly since the 70s for all wage and salary work­ers, which it has. But if you dig into that, you get a dif­fer­ent pic­ture. Most peo­ple are famil­iar with the idea that tech work­ers and lawyers and cor­po­rate lob­by­ists put in 70-hour weeks. They still work the longest out of every­one. But it’s low-wage work­ers who have increased their work time the most.

So the num­ber of hours that the high­est-paid work­ers work is con­verg­ing with the hours worked by the low­est-paid employ­ees. Is that because the low­est-paid employ­ees, who have been sub­ject to decades’ worth of wage stag­na­tion, are try­ing to make up for that stag­na­tion through work­ing more hours?

Yes. The work­ing rich today tend to pull away from the rest of the peo­ple below them wage-wise through bonus­es, high­er salaries, etc. Peo­ple at the bot­tom do it through work­ing longer hours. 

You talk in the book about this his­to­ry of dis­cus­sions of work time. It’s sim­i­lar to what the late anthro­pol­o­gist David Grae­ber talked about with tech­nol­o­gy—he argued that years ago, we all thought we were going to be liv­ing in this tech­no-utopia, some­thing like The Jet­sons, in which tech­nol­o­gy would pro­vide for many of our needs and make life bet­ter and eas­i­er. Instead, we now live in a pret­ty dystopi­an world. That’s also true of work time. 

Thinkers like John May­nard Keynes used to say that we would soon have more free time than we knew what to do with. Instead, we find our­selves work­ing longer hours than ever, and our work is always expand­ing into every nook and cran­ny of our lives. Instead of arriv­ing at a utopia, we’re in a place where work nev­er ends.

Exact­ly. Keynes thought that we would have a 15-hour work week by some­thing like 2030. And there were good rea­sons to think that. For about a hun­dred years, the num­ber of hours worked declined. The work day declined, the work week declined. But this began to shift in the 70s, when work­ers began return­ing to work­ing longer hours. But Keynes was onto some­thing. I think that he thought increased pro­duc­tion and com­pound inter­est and all the oth­er ris­ing indi­ca­tors of our econ­o­my would lead us to a leisure­ly soci­ety. He was right about the com­pound inter­est part—he was right about the prof­itabil­i­ty. But he was wrong about the time. 

Some­body was col­lect­ing all the wealth dur­ing that time and ben­e­fit­ing off of the advances of the econ­o­my and soci­ety, but it wasn’t work­ers.

Leisure actu­al­ly is expen­sive. Ben­jamin Kline Hun­ni­cutt wrote a great his­to­ry of this and argues that in the 1940s, peo­ple began desir­ing more leisure. Leisure costs more mon­ey, so they stopped desir­ing short­er hours to work longer, to make more mon­ey to pay for leisure. 

When you say they lose their time, you mean they lose con­trol of their life. They do not have con­trol over the most basic thing upon which every­thing else depends—their time.

Who­ev­er con­trols labor con­trols time. They con­trol when we have week­ends, when we raise our kids, when we eat, when we sleep, when we get up in the morn­ing, when we go to bed at night. There’s a rhythm to it that is very attached to work. When our work time is out of our con­trol, so is our oth­er time. 

To me, that is crim­i­nal. So there was a moral or eth­i­cal polemic that was run­ning through me when I was writ­ing this book. A “time squeeze” is real­ly about peo­ple being pushed around. That is a real­ly dis­mal way to live.

Not to men­tion that you can’t have things like democ­ra­cy with­out hav­ing the time to par­tic­i­pate in civic insti­tu­tions, in polit­i­cal activism, in any­thing out­side of your work.

Prac­tic­ing our free­doms and hav­ing a basic demo­c­ra­t­ic exis­tence requires hav­ing free time. If peo­ple are work­ing 50, 60 hours a week, or they’re des­per­ate­ly try­ing to scrape togeth­er a hodge­podge life, it’s hard to orga­nize. All those things are dis­rupt­ed when we have the kind of work­ing rhythm that we do.

In addi­tion to being unable to par­tic­i­pate in demo­c­ra­t­ic life, the work­place itself is the fur­thest thing from a democracy. It’s a dic­ta­tor­ship, in which your boss is king. And then when you’re home, in your time that you were sup­posed to have to do what­ev­er you want, you’re instead wor­ry­ing about work—the unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic régime of the work­place extends into your home.

Sta­tis­tics cap­ture leisure as time, but what we call leisure is typ­i­cal­ly spent recov­er­ing from work in order to return back to work. And even aside from demo­c­ra­t­ic norms, we need time for hol­i­days or enjoy­ing breaks or the great out­doors. You need space and real dis­tance to actu­al­ly pon­der and con­sid­er your life. And if all you’re doing is think­ing about the job you just came from and prepar­ing to go back to it the next day, you don’t have time to do it.

Talk about the details of this time régime of 21st-cen­tu­ry work. How is the time régime enforced? What are the mechanisms?

I became inter­est­ed in this project because of the “fair work­week” move­ment, which I think is one of the most vis­i­ble exam­ples today of work­ers orga­niz­ing for the con­trol of time. The move­ment high­lights a lot of low-wage retail, food ser­vice, health­care and trans­porta­tion work­ers whose work lives are dis­rupt­ed by peri­ods of unpre­dictable and volatile breaks. They’re unpre­dictable by design. Their sched­ules are pur­pose­ly removed from their con­trol and often giv­en to either an algo­rithm or a super­vi­sor, both of which will make the sched­ule that is obvi­ous­ly best for that par­tic­u­lar com­pa­ny, not the worker. 

I worked in retail when I was younger, and I’d be sched­uled three weeks in advance. That’s just not the case any­more. I remem­ber doing inter­views on 34th Street in New York City, a main shop­ping area, and in Burling­ton, Ver­mont. When you talk to sales clerks, they’ll say, “I got my sched­ule three days ago. But I’m being sent home ear­ly today at 3:15 PM.” They’re sent home at the exact moment they’re no longer need­ed. Those sched­ules are based upon a pre­dic­tive algo­rithm that cal­cu­lates the opti­mum amount of sales­peo­ple and sales hours on the floor based upon the weath­er, the time of year, etc. 

So your sched­ule is more like­ly to be cut. Or alter­na­tive­ly, you’re more like­ly to be held over. Work­ers become com­plete­ly exhaust­ed, not just by being over­worked, but by being over­run by the unpredictability.

Talk about the Dunkin’ Donuts work­er you profiled.

Maria Fer­nan­des worked at three dif­fer­ent Dunkin’ Donuts loca­tions in North­ern New Jer­sey. At the time, she was sup­port­ing a part­ner who also had chil­dren. One morn­ing, she got off of one shift around 6:00 AM but was not sched­uled to start her next shift until hours lat­er. She slept in her car overnight to “nap” before work. She nev­er woke up, from gas fumes. She died in her car in her Dunkin’ Donuts outfit. 

For a while, she became a sym­bol of the low-wage, over­worked Amer­i­can work­er. And for a while, there were calls from union lead­ers and activists to make leg­isla­tive changes in response—there was even a law pro­posed in her name. 

It is an incred­i­bly sad sto­ry. And there are plen­ty of peo­ple who are still work­ing those jobs and who are still sub­ject­ed to those same sched­ules who may have suf­fered sim­i­lar tragedies, but we don’t know their names.

You also write a lot about the new tech­nolo­gies that are used—not just algo­rith­mi­cal­ly defined sched­ul­ing, but all kinds of wild tech­nolo­gies used to hyper-Tay­lorize work in places like Ama­zon. You talk about a socio­met­ric badge that some MIT sci­en­tists cre­at­ed that was put around employ­ees’ necks that records all inter­per­son­al inter­ac­tions through an embed­ded micro­phone and mea­sures how often you talk to mem­bers of anoth­er gen­der. Does your voice con­vey con­fi­dence or anx­i­ety, are you wait­ing your turn to speak or con­stant­ly inter­rupt­ing oth­ers? The com­pa­ny is called “Humanyze.”

It sounds like Black Mir­ror. Humanyze actu­al­ly has stopped using the badges. I inter­viewed the guy who invent­ed those badges, he actu­al­ly seems thought­ful about what they’re doing com­pared to a lot of com­pa­nies who are just like, “look, man­agers need greater con­trol.” Oth­er soft­ware can access your web­cam and take ran­dom screen­shots of your work­space from wher­ev­er you are at ran­dom times through­out the day.

Work­ers have always hat­ed this kind of sur­veil­lance. Ever since Fred­er­ick Winslow Tay­lor walked into a fac­to­ry with a stop­watch and a slide rule in the 1890s, work­ers have hat­ed man­agers look­ing over their shoul­ders. Today we see the evo­lu­tion of that idea. It’s less through a fore­man and more through computers.

The impor­tant part to remem­ber about this stuff is not that it’s Orwellian or what­ev­er, but that it is the result of a dis­or­ga­nized work­ing class. As unions began to decline, man­agers gained more con­trol over their work­ers. As sub­con­tract­ing became a pop­u­lar way to save costs, and work­places couldn’t bar­gain over the use of sub­con­tract­ed labor, man­agers began increas­ing­ly using elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy to mon­i­tor them from afar. This paved the way until today where it is a com­mon prac­tice among in-house work­ers too. Though work­ers rou­tine­ly report they don’t like it, they’ve been vir­tu­al­ly unable to resist it. It’s actu­al­ly increased dur­ing the pandemic. 

You wrote the book large­ly before the pan­dem­ic, but I can only imag­ine that just as com­pa­nies like Zoom are hav­ing a field day because we bad­ly need their tech­nol­o­gy under quar­an­tine, the tools that you’ve described, like the one where your boss can take over your web­cam and watch you while you work at home, are also being used more against workers.

Right. We’ve known a lot about this in the con­sumer realm for a long time. It’s real­ly about data col­lec­tion. This is also the main point of Shoshana Zuboff’s writ­ing about “sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism”— it’s a new régime of col­lect­ing data. For a long time, com­pa­nies like Google and Face­book did not know what to do with that data. Now they do, and they can use it against you. They can use it in per­for­mance eval­u­a­tions, they can do it when it comes to wages, rais­es or bonus­es. They can dis­ci­pline you or fire you based upon your pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. But they would not be able to do it as well or eas­i­ly if work­ers had more pow­er to resist those things.

That issue of work­er pow­er is why we don’t have the fly­ing cars and 15-hour work weeks, right? Those ideas were advanced at a time when union den­si­ty was at its high­est. When work­ers don’t have that con­trol, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment con­tin­ues apace, but is wield­ed against work­ers rather than for them.

There is a clear need for us to fig­ure out ways to have tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion in a way that decreas­es our over­all work and elim­i­nates the most ardu­ous jobs. That inno­va­tion can’t come at the expense of peo­ple’s liveli­hoods, it should make people’s lives bet­ter. In the 50s and 60s as work­place automa­tion arrived at indus­tri­al fac­to­ries, there’s some evi­dence that work­ers and their unions, which were much denser and stronger, were able to trans­late that automa­tion into free time or high­er wages. Today we don’t have that same ability.

Let’s talk about robots and gig work and the gen­er­al ero­sion of work in the Unit­ed States and through­out the wealthy world. Your dis­cus­sion of this in the book is one of the most nuanced that I’ve read, because on the one hand, breath­less dis­course along the lines of “the robots are going to take all our jobs” is com­mon. On the oth­er hand, you have some peo­ple who say this rhetoric is overblown—that there’s actu­al­ly lit­tle evi­dence that robo­t­i­za­tion and gig work are much more preva­lent than they always have been. This is just what cap­i­tal­ism looks like: insta­bil­i­ty, peo­ple not hav­ing con­trol of their jobs and of their lives. You take from both of those arguments.

It’s dif­fi­cult to assess it clear­ly. I agree with you that there are sort of breath­less and Pollyan­naish takes on both sides. The most recent and cel­e­brat­ed one was pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Andrew Yang: his cam­paign was all about the fear of automation. 

There’s cer­tain­ly evi­dence that robots are get­ting much cheap­er and much eas­i­er to put into work­places. I pro­filed a com­pa­ny that basi­cal­ly rents robots; if you have a prob­lem, the com­pa­ny devel­ops a robot for it, and you can rent it for how­ev­er long you want it for. When you’re done with it, they take it back. That great­ly low­ers the bar­ri­ers to entry to bring­ing automa­tion on to a par­tic­u­lar kind of assem­bly line or a par­tic­u­lar kind of pro­duc­tion process.

But I was inter­est­ed in the way we talk about robots. I uncov­ered stuff from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions where peo­ple were very fear­ful of the poten­tial monot­o­ny of a life where we are just adjuncts of machines at work, or where machines do all of our work for us. Isaac Asi­mov once said we’re all going to become machine ten­ders. Today, fear of robots isn’t about bore­dom or malaise, it’s about los­ing a liveli­hood. I think that has some­thing to say about the dif­fer­ent kinds of regimes that peo­ple were work­ing under those dif­fer­ent times. 

There’s a clear his­to­ry of peo­ple embrac­ing tech­nolo­gies that lim­it ardu­ous work. I think peo­ple would wel­come that kind of tech­nol­o­gy today. The prob­lem is that we don’t have the con­trol to do it. Instead, we get a lot of fear and scape­goat­ing. When we don’t have con­trol over tech­nol­o­gy, we either blame tech­nol­o­gy or blame oth­er peo­ple, rather than the peo­ple who are actu­al­ly in con­trol of this technology.

Work­ers and unions need to think care­ful­ly about hav­ing these kinds of issues in their bar­gain­ing con­tracts. There’s actu­al­ly a recent increase of peo­ple talk­ing about app use in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. Ways that work­ers can exer­cise some degree of con­trol or lever­age over how tech­nol­o­gy is used are crucial.

What about gig work? You pro­file gig work­ers and talk about what their work lives and non-work lives are like. But there’s a sim­i­lar way that gig work is talked about: that we’re all going to be gig work­ers soon. How much truth is there to that assertion?

I’m that per­son who strikes up an oafish con­ver­sa­tion with the Lyft dri­ver. You get real­ly dif­fer­ent reflec­tions: some peo­ple real­ly do see their job as a side hus­tle and enjoy some of the free­doms that come with it. And some peo­ple see those free­doms very differently. 

I pro­file peo­ple who dri­ve for Uber Eats. They can work when­ev­er they want, right? Wrong. They can’t work when peo­ple don’t want food. And they have to work when peo­ple want food that costs the most amount of mon­ey and they’ll get the largest amount of tips. So they’re actu­al­ly seri­ous­ly con­strained. I inter­viewed a woman who spent time dri­ving around each night from 9:00 PM to 1:00 AM, often with her six-year-old daugh­ter in the back­seat, deliv­er­ing meals. She didn’t feel she was free to work whenever. 

App work­ers are work­ers and should be rec­og­nized as such. They should have rights and lib­er­ties and ben­e­fits that come with being a work­er. The inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor sta­tus has been such a lie, and a way to exert so much more con­trol over that workforce. 

Which is some­thing under dis­cus­sion right now, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Cal­i­for­nia.

I have a strange sense of opti­mism that they will win. There’s a lot of orga­niz­ing going on in the gig econ­o­my by dri­vers and deliv­ery work­ers. Even since the pan­dem­ic start­ed, there were maybe half a dozen work stop­pages at a num­ber of impor­tant gig employ­ers. That activ­i­ty will lead somewhere. 

Let’s talk about the ide­o­log­i­cal aspects of this time cri­sis. That was one of the most inter­est­ing parts of your book: you talk about what the ide­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the time régime—the “do what you love” ethos, the idea that you need to not just work a job to pay the bills but find a job that you find ful­fill­ing on a deep per­son­al and exis­ten­tial lev­el. This is just an ide­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for shit­ty work at longer hours. 

It’s one thing to under­stand how and why low-wage work­ers end up hav­ing to put in more time. But rel­a­tive­ly well-off people’s work-time grow­ing is some­thing dif­fer­ent. Cul­ture is clear­ly part of this, but there’s also a mate­r­i­al basis. This is one of the things that peo­ple don’t appre­ci­ate enough about the “mean­ing­ful work” dis­course. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the cyn­i­cal recu­per­a­tion by man­agers and gurus about doing what you love, blah. But we actu­al­ly all want mean­ing­ful jobs. We deserve them. If we have to work to sur­vive, at the very least, we should be able to like what we’re doing for eight-plus hours a day. 

I’ve always found it strange that some peo­ple are will­ing to write off the idea of mean­ing­ful work alto­geth­er as if it’s a cap­i­tal­ist plot. The prob­lem is not that peo­ple are encour­aged to find mean­ing­ful work. You write in the book that that is a right that we all should have. The prob­lem is when that con­cept is used to paper over work­ing con­di­tions and pay that are get­ting worse and worse.

It’s no sur­prise that the “do what you love ethos” explod­ed at the very same time that con­di­tions for work­ers began to stag­nate. It’s not some elite con­spir­a­cy—there was a gen­uine desire to leave monot­o­nous, tire­some, gru­el­ing fac­to­ry labor behind. And there was just as much a real desire to burn down your cubi­cle like they did in Office Space. But those desires were eas­i­ly recu­per­at­ed and re-enlist­ed in a cam­paign to say, “if work is mean­ing­ful and work is ful­fill­ing and work is good for my soul, then more work must be better.”

The Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board had to rule against a pro­pos­al by T-Mobile that work­ers had to main­tain a pos­i­tive work envi­ron­ment. The NLRB ruled that no, you can’t do that. You can’t force peo­ple to like their job. When I talked to dancers at the old Lusty Lady strip club in San Fran­cis­co, they explained that man­age­ment includ­ed a “fun clause” in their con­tract that insist­ed their work was fun. The dancers said, “maybe it is, maybe it’s not, but that’s not your deci­sion. That’s up to us.” 

Speak­ing of San Fran­cis­co, you also were in the Bay Area to talk to tech work­ers. You have a fun­ny scene where you get on a Google bus and are kicked off for ask­ing tech work­ers about their jobs. Sep­a­rate­ly, you go to this swanky Sil­i­con Val­ley bar where… I don’t know, deals get made, I guess. And a guy who works at Google tells you, “Every­where you look, you hear peo­ple talk­ing about ‘mean­ing.’ They aren’t philoso­phers. … They sell ban­ner ads. What do they know about meaning?” 

There have been numer­ous books writ­ten on the mar­riage of the coun­ter­cul­ture and the com­put­er age. It’s such an inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal switch. Peo­ple were inter­est­ed in a “let’s destroy the office, let’s have ful­fill­ing work­days, let’s have free­dom to exper­i­ment with new kinds of employ­ment rela­tion­ships.” And now they’re lead­ers of a move­ment to keep peo­ple at work longer and longer through a cou­ple of perks.

You argue in the end of the book for a time agen­da that work­ers could unite around, around this shared expe­ri­ence of not hav­ing con­trol of their work lives. What should the 21st-cen­tu­ry time agen­da look like? What should it include? What should be on the ban­ners of the move­ments in the street demand­ing their time back?

The old ban­ners used to say basi­cal­ly “few­er hours for more mon­ey.” For a long time, the labor move­ment was suc­cess­ful at win­ning exact­ly that. Dur­ing a cri­sis, espe­cial­ly like the one right now, it often seems tone deaf to talk about few­er hours when peo­ple are unem­ployed, when peo­ple aren’t get­ting CARES Act fund­ing and unem­ploy­ment insur­ance is run­ning out. But there’s a his­tor­i­cal prece­dent here. Dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, the gov­ern­ment used work-shar­ing ben­e­fits. They spread the work around to avoid lay­ing peo­ple off, reduc­ing hours and using gov­ern­ment pro­grams to sub­si­dize you at your pre­vi­ous wage. We should be doing more of that.

Protests around health­care, or to expand the purview of care in gen­er­al in an econ­o­my, are sig­nif­i­cant, too. We could cut and paste pro­grams from some peer nations in West­ern Europe. We work about 400 hours per year more than the Ger­mans, 250 hours more than French work­ers. They’re not starv­ing—they’re doing fine. State pro­vi­sions are impor­tant not only because they’re good for peo­ple’s health­care, but because it allows peo­ple to step back from work. But half of Amer­i­cans get their health insur­ance through a job, and min­i­mum-hour require­ments and eli­gi­bil­i­ty statutes require that peo­ple con­tin­ue work­ing, often longer than they want, just to main­tain their health­care. It’s trag­ic and it’s criminal. 

When I inter­viewed work­ers from Ohio from a laid-off auto plant out­side Day­ton, Ohio, they said, “Health­care should be tak­en off the union bar­gain­ing agen­da. It’s a dri­ver of lock­outs, it’s a dri­ver of dis­rup­tions, and most impor­tant­ly, we spend so much time argu­ing about health­care that we can’t talk about high­er wages and hours.” So uni­ver­sal health­care, Medicare for All, is an impor­tant goal of any­one think­ing about short­er hours.

You also talk about the upsurge in the labor move­ment around teachers. 

We think of teach­ers hav­ing the sum­mers off, right? I am the son of a teacher myself, and remem­ber our kitchen table piled high with books for the entire sum­mer, because that’s when you plan lessons and do a lot of oth­er impor­tant work ahead of the school year. Recent­ly, we’ve seen teach­ers get­ting not only sum­mer jobs to sup­ple­ment their income, but night jobs after school. 

But teach­ers have tak­en so much lead­er­ship in reori­ent­ing their work­places through strikes, and strikes that do more than just talk about teach­ers’ work issues. They talk about race and racism, immi­gra­tion, hous­ing, access to food. There’s no rea­son why work­ers can’t also talk about reduc­tion of work­ing hours. 

When it comes to con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, this is what peo­ple call “bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good.” Free time should be a pub­lic good. And we should use our moments of nego­ti­a­tions with employ­ers to think about win­ning soci­ety-wide agree­ments to decrease work time.

Let’s imag­ine this pan­dem­ic is over. What’s num­ber one on the “Jamie McCal­lum Agen­da for Free Time?” 

Oh, wow. [Long pause] I’m stalling just think­ing about it…

Our work-time régime has made you unable to even con­sid­er this ques­tion because it feels so far out­side of the realm of possibility.

It real­ly does. I’ll say two things. My the­sis advi­sor in grad­u­ate school was Stan­ley Aronowitz, one of the great labor schol­ars of the last half cen­tu­ry. I wrote him in June and said, “I’d like to meet with you.” He wrote back, “there are three rea­sons to become a pro­fes­sor: June, July, and August. Come to me in Sep­tem­ber.” I was like, man, I want that guy’s job and the free­dom that comes with it. One of the most reward­ing things about hav­ing the free­dom to write this book was the free­dom I had to go around the coun­try and meet peo­ple, talk to work­ers and hear what they’re deal­ing with. I want to be able to do more of that.

The oth­er thing is, any­one right now in Amer­i­ca with a small child is just going absolute­ly insane dur­ing this pan­dem­ic. So I want more schools, day­care camps, play­grounds, what­ev­er, to be open 24–7. I would like that to change not only for my son’s ben­e­fit, but just for the gen­er­al men­tal and emo­tion­al san­i­ty of the society. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Micah Uetricht is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who “indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.


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Corona-fied: Employers Spying on Remote Workers in Their Homes

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The future of work is here, ushered in by a global pandemic. But is it turning employment into a Worker’s Paradise of working at home? Or more of a Big Brother panopticon?

Disturbing increases in the use of digital surveillance technologies by employers to monitor their remote workers are raising alarm bells. With the number of remote workers surging as a result of the pandemic—42 percent of U.S. workers are now doing their jobs from their kitchens, living rooms, and home offices—a number of employers have begun requiring their workers to download spying software to their laptops and smartphones. The goal is for businesses to monitor what their remote employees do all day, to track job performance and productivity, and to reduce so-called “cyber-slacking.”

Business software products from Hubstaff, which tracks a worker’s mouse movements, keyboard strokes, webpages visited, email, file transfers and applications used, are surging in sales. So are sales for TSheets, which workers download to their smartphones so that employers can track their location. Another product, called Time Doctor, “downloads videos of employees’ screens” and uses “a computer’s webcam to take a picture of the employee every 10 minutes,” NPR reports. One employee told NPR, “If you’re idle for a few minutes, if you go to the bathroom or… [to the kitchen], a pop-up will come up and it’ll say, ‘You have 60 seconds to start working again or we’re going to pause your time.’”

Another system, InterGuard, can be secretly installed on workers’ computers. The Washington Post reports that it “creates a minute-by-minute timeline of every app and website they view, categorizing each as ‘productive’ or ‘unproductive’ and ranking workers by their ‘productivity score.’” Other employers are using a lower-tech approach, requiring workers to stay logged in to a teleconference service like Zoom all day so they can be continually watched.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, one surveillance company, Awareness Technologies, says it has seen its sales triple. Executives at Hubstaff and Teramind also say demand for their companies’ monitoring products has tripled. One website showing “Employee Monitoring Software in the USA” lists nearly 70 companies with products for sale.

Outdated Laws Keep It Legal

Despite this surge in online surveillance activity, currently, it is a legal practice in the United States. Individual state laws vary over whether companies must inform workers that they’re using tracking software, but in reality, “When you’re on your office computer, you have no privacy at all,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. “Anything and everything you do is probably monitored by your boss.”

Current laws are vastly outdated, as they are based on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, when the primary form of electronic communication was the telephone. That was a distant time when desktop computers were first becoming popular, and smartphones were not yet a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye.

And now, in response to the coronavirus outbreak, companies such as Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Salesforce have developed intrusive applications that enable companies to continuously track the health status of their employees. Often they include a system for tracking contacts between employees within an office, and a mobile app for collecting information about their health status. A number of large U.S. employers, including AmazonWalmart, Home Depot and Starbucks, are taking the temperatures of their employees before they are allowed to work. Certainly, employers have a legitimate need to collect the necessary data to safeguard their workplaces, especially in response to a pandemic. But what is the appropriate level of “health intrusion”? How voluntary is the participation of workers, and who gets to decide?

The reality of this constant Big Brother digital spying in people’s homes is that dozens of remote workers are starting to complain that they feel burned out by this pressure. A recent Fishbowl survey of major companies’ employees found that three-quarters of those polled were opposed to using “an app or device that allows their company to trace their contacts with colleagues.” Yet many fear they will be branded as a troublemaker or lose their job if they speak out. And since remote workers hardly see each other—and increasingly may not even know many of their coworkers—these factors will make labor organizing and collective worker empowerment increasingly challenging.

U.S. labor unions have been slow to advocate for updating these outdated laws. One union, the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, has been working to blunt the worst of the abuses. Labor-friendly media have been missing this story as well. Not only should unions advocate to update the laws and limit digital spying, but why not also demand that home-based workers be compensated by employers for use of their house, utilities and the internet? And that the employer remains responsible to provide equipment and a safe workplace, even in the home?

Remote Workforce GrowthThe New Normal?

As the number of remote workers rises, concerns are growing among labor advocates that this is quickly becoming the “new normal.” One survey by Gartner, Inc. found that 74 percent of companies intend to keep some proportion of their workforce on permanent remote status, with nearly a quarter of respondents saying they will move at least 20 percent of their on-site employees to permanent remote status. Google/Alphabet recently announced it will keep its 200,000 full-time and contract employees home until at least July 2021, and half of Facebook employees will work from home over the next decade. Hub International, a global insurance brokerage, has shifted 90 percent of its 12,000 employees to remote status. “Teleperformance, the world’s largest call-center company, estimates that around 150,000 of its employees [nearly half its global workforce] will not return to a physical worksite,” according to Social Europe.

Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom says:

“A recent separate survey of firms from the Survey of Business Uncertainty that I run with the Atlanta Federal Reserve and the University of Chicago indicated that the share of working days spent at home is expected to increase fourfold from pre-COVID levels, from 5 percent to 20 percent.

“Of the dozens of firms I have talked to, the typical plan is that employees will work from home one to three days a week, and come into the office the rest of the time.”

But not all at-home workers are created equal. Bloom continues:

“Taken together, this is generating a time bomb for inequality. Our results show that more educated, higher-earning employees are far more likely to work from home—so they are continuing to get paid, develop their skills and advance their careers. At the same time, those unable to work from home—either because of the nature of their jobs, or because they lack suitable space or internet connections—are being left behind. They face bleak prospects if their skills and work experience erode during an extended shutdown and beyond.”

The future of work has become more uncertain than ever. In this “brave new world,” labor unions and advocates must ensure that the pandemic is not misused by businesses as an excuse to worsen conditions for employees who work out of the office. It is easy to imagine how the lines between ‘remote’ work and ‘platform’ work could blur, leading to more ‘Uberization’ as work devolves into ‘independent’ contracts, bogus self-employment and ‘pay-by-project’ arrangements that can be easily outsourced to remote (and lower-cost) destinations.

Worker advocates must push for a strong and modern legal data protection framework. And that should include an effective enforcement system against privacy abuse that disincentivizes illegal spying behavior. Remote work should not become a downward slide toward a Big Brother panopticon that penetrates into society ever more deeply, including into our homes.

This blog originally appeared at Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute, on September 23, 2020.

About the Author: Steven Hill (www.Steven-Hill.com) is the author of Raw Deal: How the Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers and Expand Social Security Now: How to Ensure Americans Get the Retirement They Deserve.


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Wild West: Firms interpret California’s privacy law as they see fit

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Katy Murphy For all the angst it’s already caused in corporate America, the strongest data privacy law in the nation landed on the West Coast last week with a relative whimper. But the flurry of legal notices that accompanied the California Consumer Privacy Act point to regulatory and political drama ahead this election year.

The landmark California law — which has put Sacramento at the center of the national tech regulatory storm — has now been in effect for one week, giving residents the right to know what information companies collect about them and some measure of control over that data.

But a sampling of major retail, financial services and media websites found that companies are reacting to the Privacy Act in different ways based upon their own interpretations of the complex law and its unresolved regulations.

The patchwork of industry responses to California’s new privacy regime, which won’t be enforced until at least July 1, ensure the law will remain in dispute for many months to come. Adding to the uncertainty, a wealthy privacy champion is preparing a ballot initiative to rewrite the Privacy Act, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra expects legal challenges, and Congress is under intense industry pressure to pass a federal standard that would supersede state laws like California’s.

Perhaps the most visible change California promised to deliver to those tired of being tracked online is easy to miss, even if you are looking.

The law requires companies that sell consumers’ personal information to post a prominent “Do Not Sell My Info” link. But large retailers like Walmart and Lowe’s put their “Do Not Sell” links in the same footnote-like font and location commonly used for privacy policies. And they were nowhere to be found on other websites, such as Whole Foods Market, Albertsons-owned grocery stores, Visa or Bank of America. Those companies assert elsewhere on their sites that they don’t sell consumer data, which would mean they don’t have to include the links.

Likewise, “Do Not Sell” buttons or links do not appear on Google, Facebook, or Amazon’s homepages. Those companies — including two of the biggest players in online advertising and data collection — also contend that’s because they don’t sell consumer information anyway.

“We never sell your personal information,” read a pop-up window last week on Google search.

A “Do Not Sell” link appears at the bottom of the New York Times and Washington Post homepages, at least in California. The Los Angeles Times’ link takes readers to a page with information about their new rights — and a warning. Blocking the sale of one’s information also stops personalized advertising, it says, “an essential source of revenue” that “allows us to consistently deliver the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalism you’ve come to expect from the Los Angeles Times and its affiliates.”

(POLITICO’s homepage did not include such a link as of Wednesday. Brad Dayspring, the company’s vice president for marketing and communications, said that “POLITICO’s privacy policy is being updated and operational procedures to ensure compliance with CCPA are being finalized and will be visible in the coming days.”)

Spotify concedes in its California privacy notice that “it is currently unclear whether the use of certain types of advertising partners would be considered a sale under CCPA.” The company doesn’t offer a “Do Not Sell” link but gives listeners a chance to opt out of tailored advertising.

None of this hedging is a surprise to Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. That’s especially true, she said, given that the Privacy Act won’t be enforced until July 1 and regulations are still being finalized.

“There is a six-month window where we’re going to see a lot of wiggling around,” King said. “No one wants to have to admit they’re selling if they can work their way around the regulations.”

As companies, consumers and the attorney general wrestle with the new law this year, here are other things to watch for:

— Cracking down: Only California’s attorney general will have the power to sue companies for most CCPA violations, and not until July 1, after the final regulations are expected to be released. But Becerra might weigh in earlier on the type of data-sharing that constitutes the sale of personal information under the law, and other murky areas. He also has repeatedly warned that the first six months will not be a free period, and that he can retroactively ding companies for early violations. Becerra recently told reporters that he will prioritize mishandling of children’s data. Companies may not sell data about children under 16 without permission from teens or the parents of young children.

— Opt-out outsourcing: The CCPA and its proposed rules allow for services that would help consumers exercise their privacy rights even if they are not inclined to spend their free time hunting down links and filling out forms. Brent Blackaby, who hails from the digital strategy and marketing world, is already beta testing such services for the Bay Area startup he co-founded, Confidently.com. Common Sense Media, a consumer advocacy group, did some of the legwork through its public awareness campaign by posting partially filled-out CCPA request forms for the publishers of three apps popular with kids: Snapchat, Spotify and TikTok. And GitHub has posted a directory of crowd-sourced links to dozens of companies’ CCPA pages.

 Data broker registry: How can you tell a company you’ve never heard of to stop selling your data? By the end of the month, those in the business of buying and selling details about people with whom they have no direct relationship will have to register annually on a new public database managed by the California attorney general. The registry, inspired by a similar one in Vermont, is live — but had no businesses listed — as of early Tuesday. Data brokers that don’t register by Jan. 31 will face fines of $100 per day.

 Already rewriting the rules: Just as the new law finds its footing, Californians might rewrite it. Bay Area developer Alastair Mactaggart, whose previous initiative pursuit led to the CCPA, is leading a new effort to qualify a November ballot proposal that would change the law. The initiative would create a separate agency to enforce the state’s privacy regime; add restrictions on the use of sensitive personal information; and prevent the Legislature from watering down the law, among other revisions. Tech and telecom companies have not taken public positions on the initiative, nor has a coalition of consumer privacy groups. Of course, businesses could just be waiting to see if proponents manage to qualify the initiative, as expected, before spending big to defeat it. Mactaggart said he is getting early reports that “folks are eager to sign” and “no one is saying no.”

This article was originally published at Politico on January 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Katy Murphy covers consumer regulations with a focus on data privacy for POLITICO California. Before joining the team, she was a one-woman Capitol bureau for the The Mercury News and East Bay Times and previously covered K-12 and higher education for more than a decade, based in the Bay Area.

A Chicago-area native, she graduated from the University of Notre Dame and had stints in Puerto Rico and Indiana before moving west. She lives with her husband and young daughter and has memorized every episode of Peppa Pig. In her copious spare time, she enjoys reading fiction, taking scenic hikes that aren’t overly strenuous and glamping in the mountains with people who really know how to cook.


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Corporate Spies Keep An Eye On Organized Labor

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Google’s computers are spying on its workers.

Anytime a Google employee uses an online calendar to schedule a meeting involving more than 100 co-workers, management gets an alert—a great way for the anti-union corporation to sniff out union organizing efforts.

Lots of other employers also would like to put union organizing campaigns under surveillance. And they’ll have their chance if the National Labor Relations Board gives corporations a free hand to snoop on employees, as two of the board’s right-wing members, John Ring and Marvin Kaplan, evidently want to do.

Ring and Kaplan want to reconsider the longtime ban on labor spying. It’s a sleazy idea, but typical for these two. They’re part of a three-member Republican cabal that’s taken over the board and issued a string of decisions eviscerating workers’ rights and giving ever more power to corporations.

Because of them, for example, employers can change working conditions in the middle of a contractfire employees for engaging in what was previously considered protected union activity and misclassify employees as contractors, who aren’t protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Allowing corporations to spy on workers would be one more gift the pair could give to employers that are eager to suppress wages and keep workers from organizing.

Surveillance intimidates employees. It can kill organizing efforts. If corporations get the green light to spy on workers, they’ll have an easier time ferreting out organizing campaigns and bullying employees into dropping them.

Unions fight for higher pay and better working conditions. They give workers a voice in the workplace. So corporations desperately want to keep them out. Some even spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on union-busting law firms and human resources consultants to help them.

Federal law prohibits employers from interfering in workers’ organizing rights. Right now, that means it’s illegal for corporations to surveil union activists or even give the impression that they’re snooping.

But some companies spy anyway and invent all sorts of excuses when they get caught doing it.

Google claims that its meeting alert tool is to control email and calendar spam, not labor organizing. But workers accustomed to the company’s anti-union paranoia don’t buy that for a minute.

The employees discovered the calendar tool by accident, and there’s no way for them to remove it from their computers. Google watches its employees all of the time.

The growth of technology and social media has given employers new ways to spy. Walmart, for example, has been accused of monitoring employee discussions on Reddit.

And the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers has accused Boeing of using cameras and wireless monitoring devices to track workers who voted to join the union. The company denied keeping tabs on union supporters. But as the union pointed out, there was no other reason for Boeing to spy on these employees but not others who were doing similar work.

If the NLRB were doing its job, it would be giving workers new protections against high-tech surveillance. Instead, as Ring and Kaplan indicated in a case involving the National Captioning Institute, they want to consider taking what little protection workers already have.

The National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians filed an NLRB complaint because the National Captioning Institute fired union supporters and spied on organizing efforts through an employee Facebook site.

An NLRB panel—consisting of Ring, Kaplan and Democrat Lauren McFerran—ruled Oct. 29 that the institute interfered with workers’ organizing rights. The panel ruled the surveillance illegal and ordered the employees reinstated.

But in a footnote to the ruling, Ring and Kaplan said they’d like to revisit the prohibition on spying in a future case—especially spying conducted so clandestinely that workers don’t find out about it during an organizing campaign.

How, they asked, can spying impede workers’ organizing rights if “not a single employee” is aware of it?

That’s like suggesting that a person spied on in a department store dressing room isn’t violated as long as he or she never finds out about the Peeping Tom.

Besides, in 1941, a federal court took up this question and came down firmly against spying. In that case, a vegetable growers association argued that its surveillance of vegetable packers was permissible because there was no evidence that the workers knew about it. And what they didn’t know, the association insisted, couldn’t hurt them.

The NLRB disagreed. And the court backed the NLRB on appeal, writing that “casual examination of the dictionary discloses that a person may be interfered with, restrained or coerced without knowing it.”

The problem is, neither Ring nor Kaplan has shown respect for past decisions benefiting workers.

In June, overturning a 38-year precedent, Ring, Kaplan and Republican board member William J. Emanuel ruled that employers could bar union staff organizers from cafeterias and other “public spaces” in their workplaces. The ruling will make it more difficult for unions to connect with employees who want to organize.

In case after case, the Republican board members have rolled back worker rights.

In January, they delivered a devastating blow to gig workers by ruling that SuperShuttle drivers are independent contractors, not employees entitled to form a union.

And in July, they ruled that a company may withdraw recognition of a union before bargaining for a new contract if it believes that the union has lost the support of at least 50 percent of its members since the last agreement was signed. The employer doesn’t have to prove the union lost support, just gather evidence that it has. If the employer withdraws recognition of the union and the union subsequently wins a new election to represent workers, the employer faces no penalty.

Allowing companies to snoop on organizing campaigns would be the Republican board’s biggest giveaway to employers yet.

If that happens, all workplace laptops and company-issued cell phones could be programmed to inform on the workers who use them. And oftentimes the workers wouldn’t even know they’re being watched.

The NLRB’s job is to protect workers, not let employers think that it’s OK to engage in underhanded behavior as long as they don’t get caught. Ring, Kaplan and the rest of the board have a responsibility to set higher standards, not help employers climb down into the gutter.

This blog was originally published by AFL-CIO on November 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).


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Walmart patents technology to eavesdrop on workers

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Walmart has just patented surveillance technology which would allow it to eavesdrop on worker’s conversations and help monitor them to ensure they meet the company’s “performance metrics.”

The “Listening to the Frontend” system would collect audio data from the stores’ cashier areas, allowing it to pick up everything from beeps to conversations with customers to, potentially, conversations between workers.  It would then analyse the sounds to ensure the employee is working efficiently — and help Walmart achieve “cost savings” and “guest satisfaction.”

“We’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers,” a Walmart spokesperson told Buzzfeed News, who first reported the story. “We don’t have any further details to share on these patents at this time.”

It’s unclear when, or even if, Walmart will ever actually introduce this technology. But it is another example of how corporate giants are using technology in an attempt to track and control their workers — despite evidence showing that excess surveillance makes workers feel nervous and actually ends up slowing them down.

Amazon — whose profits topped $3 billion in 2017 — recently patented wristbandswhich can precisely track where its warehouse workers are, and point them in the right direction via vibration. In 2013, the Financial Times also documented how Amazon workers’ personal sat-navs set target times for them to shelve packages, and reports them to management if they’re behind schedule.

The surveillance isn’t just relegated to Amazon’s warehouses either. A 2015 New York Times story documented a similar Big Brother-esque atmosphere at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle. In a rare internal email, CEO Jeff Bezos pushed back on the article, saying it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

Uber’s instant rating system is similarly stressful on workers, punishing drivers who fall bellow a 4.6.

Unsurprisingly, being constantly tracked and asked to meet robot-like targets is having a devastating effect on workers. The British GMB trade union previously warned that the kinds of “regimes” Amazon employers worked under were causing them to have musculoskeletal problems as well as stress and anxiety.

“It’s hard, physical work, but the constant stress of being monitored and never being able to drop below a certain level of performance is harsh,” Elly Baker, GMB’s lead officer for Amazon, said. “You can’t be a normal person. You have to be an above-average Amazon robot all the time.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luke Barnes is a reporter at ThinkProgress. He previously worked at MailOnline in the U.K., where he was sent to cover Belfast, Northern Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated in 2015 from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science. He has also interned at Talking Points Memo, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Narratively.


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“Ban the Box” Continues to Take Off

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erik idoni

Yesterday, June 10, 2015, the National Employment Law Project and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights called on President Obama to “Ban the Box” and give everyone a fair chance to get a job by pushing background checks to later in the hiring process and banning the check-box on job applications asking if a person has a criminal record. That was the latest step in the “Ban the Box” campaign that on June 1 saw Ohio become the 17th state to “Ban the Box”, and expects to see Oregon join them soon.

An estimated 68 million Americans have a criminal record, about one in four and more than the total population of France. On top of that, only around half of the FBI’s records are up-to-date, meaning an arrest without a conviction can still negatively impact employment chances due to an incorrect record. Not only do 92% of employers run background checks, but more than 800 occupations ban felons via the law or licensing rules. Furthermore, only 40% of employers interviewed said they would “definitely” or “probably” hire someone with a criminal record. Furthermore, the inability of ex-felons and formerly imprisoned Americans to get a job is costing the economy an estimated $57 to $65 billion per year in lost output.

The “Ban the Box” campaign’s purpose is to give people with criminal records a fair chance at getting a job. By eliminating background checks until later in the process, every person would have the chance to demonstrate their qualification without the shadow of a criminal record hanging over them. This can be a serious help to people with criminal records as 76% of hiring discrimination takes place when reviewing a job application.

The campaign took its first major step back in 1998 when Hawaii became the first state to pass a “Ban the Box” law. However, the term “Ban the Box” wasn’t coined until All of Us or None started using it in the early 2000s. Since then, “Ban the Box” has taken off, with four states passing “Ban the Box” laws already in 2015. While most states’ “Ban the Box” laws only apply to public employers, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, along with cities like Baltimore, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have extended the laws to private employers.

These policies have been effective as well. After Minneapolis “Banned the Box” over half of applicants with convictions were hired, 10% of the people hired by the City of Atlanta between March and October of 2013 had records, and the number of people in Durham County, North Carolina with criminal records that were recommended for hire nearly tripled in the two years since they “Banned the Box”. Employers don’t regret these decisions either as a study by Evolv found that employees with criminal records end up being 1% to 1.5% more productive than those without criminal records.

There are many ways for people who want to help “Ban the Box” to get involved. The National Employment Law Project has plenty of information on the campaign as well as campaign strategies, model policies, and much more. People can also visit the “Ban the Box” campaign website to take the pledge, get information on the campaign, and find tools for a successful campaign. Similarly, All of Us or None has their own toolkit for people to use on their campaign as they try to make Ohio the 17th state out of 50 to “Ban the Box”.

In the interest of both strengthening the economy and giving more qualified individuals a fair chance at getting jobs, we here at Workplace Fairness hope to see “Ban the Box” continue to thrive.

About the Author: The author’s name is Erik Idoni. Erik Idoni is a student at the George Mason University School of Law and an intern at Workplace Fairness.


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Employee Rights Short Takes: Supreme Court Hears Equal Protection Case, Firing For Facebook Posts May Be Illegal & More

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ellen simon

Texas Doctor To Collect Over 10 Million On Defamation/Breach of Contract Case

The Supreme Court of Texas cleared the way for Dr. Neal Fisher, a Dallas physician, to collect his 9.8 million dollar verdict against Pinnacle Anesthesia Consultants – an anesthesia group of which he was a shareholder and founding member.

Fisher sued Pinnacle for defamation and breach of contract when Pinnacle falsely accused him of alcohol and drug abuse after he raised concerns about an increasing volume of patient complaints and questionable billing practices. In 2007, a Dallas jury unanimously rendered a verdict in his favor. Last year the court of appeals upheld the verdict.

This month, the Supreme Court of Texas issued an order declining to hear the case which means that the verdict stands. With pre and post judgment interest, it is reported that Pinnacle will have to pay Dr. Fisher somewhere in the vicinity of $10.8 million dollars. Fisher has been recognized as one of the top five anesthesiologists in the state of Texas. For more about the case, read here.

EEOC Issues GINA Regulations

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued final regulations this month for purposes of implementation of the Genetic Information Non Discrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). Under GINA, it is illegal to discriminate against employees or applicants for employment because of genetic information. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

GINA was enacted, in large part, in recognition of developments in the field of genetics, the decoding of the human genome, and advances in the field of genomic medicine. Genetic tests now exist that can inform individuals whether they may be at risk for developing a specific disease or disorder. But just as the number of genetic tests increase, so do the concerns of the general public about whether they may be at risk of losing access to health coverage or employment if insurers or employers have their genetic information.

Congress enacted GINA to address these concerns….

The final GINA rules published by the EEOC on November 9, 2010 prohibits the use of genetic information or family medical history in any aspect of employment, restricts employers from requesting, requiring, or purchasing genetic information, and strictly limits employers from disclosing genetic information. Family medical history is covered under the Act since it is often used to determine whether someone has an increased risk of getting a disease, disorder, or condition in the future. The Act also prohibits harassment or retaliation because of an individual’s genetic information. For more about  the new rules and how to lawfully comply with them read here.

Firing for Facebook Posts About Work May Be Illegal

A Connecticut woman who was fired after posting disparaging remarks about her boss on Facebook has prompted the National Labor Board to prosecute a complaint against her employer – and this is big news. As noted by Steven Greenhouse in the NY Times:

This is the first case in which the labor board has stepped in to argue that workers’ criticism of their bosses or companies on a social networking site are generally protected activity  and that employers would be violating the law by punishing workers for such statements.

Dawnmarie Souza, an emergency medical technician was fired late last year after she criticized her boss on her personal Facebook page. The Harford, Connecticut office of the NLRB announced on October 27th that it plans to prosecute a complaint against her employer, American Medical Response of Connecticut as a result of its investigation.

The NLRB determined that the Facebook postings constituted “protected concerted activity” and that the employer’s internet policy was overly restrictive to the extent that it precluded employees from making disparaging remarks when discussing the company or its supervisors.

It is not unusual for companies to have comparable policies in place as they attempt to deal with  lawful restriction of social networking by their workforce and that’s why this news made a huge impact in the employment law world this month.

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) restricts employers’ attempts to interfere with employees’ efforts to work together to improve the terms or conditions of their workplace. The NLRB has long held that Section 7 was violated if an employer’s conduct would “reasonably tend to chill employees” in exercising their NLRB rights and that’s what prompted the complaint.

You can bet that both employers and employees will be keeping a careful watch for the decision  which is expected some time after the hearing before  an administrative law judge currently scheduled for January 15, 2011. For more about it, read here.

Supreme Court Hears Case Claiming Unconstitutional Gender Bias In Citizenship Law

The Supreme Court heard arguments in Flores-Villar v. U.S. this month, a case which challenges the constitutionality of a law that makes it easier for a child of unwanted parents to obtain citizenship if the mother is a U.S. citizen rather than the father.

Ruben Flores-Villar was born in Mexico but grew up in California. He was convicted of importing marijuana, was deported, and illegally reentered the country. In 2006, immigration authorities brought criminal charges against him. At that time, Flores-Villar sought citizenship, claiming his father was a U.S. citizen. The request was denied by immigration authorities because of  a law requiring that a citizen father live in the United States for at least five years before a child is born in order for the child to obtain citizenship. Mothers need only to have lived in the county for one year for the child to obtain citizenship.

Flores-Villar claimed a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment claiming that the Act discriminated on the basis of gender. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found against him and held that the law’s disparate treatment of fathers was not unconstitutional. The last time the Court considered the issue of gender differences in citizenship qualification was the case of Nguyen v. INS in which the Court upheld a law creating a gender differential for determining parentage for purposes of citizenship. Flores-Villar’s attorney argued that Nguyen was distinguishable because it was based on biological differences whereas this case was based on antiquated notions of gender roles.

There is no doubt that this will be an interesting and important decision from the Supreme Court. For more about the case, including the Supreme Court filings, read here.

This article was originally posted on Employee Rights Post.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.


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Protected freedom of speech for workers on Facebook?

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Image: Richard NegriIn an era where it’s not unheard of for an employee’s use of social media to lead to their dismissal, one question that comes up more frequently these days regarding a worker’s rights is “Can I say that on Facebook?

This week, the National Labor Relations Board alleged that a Connecticut company acted illegally when they fired an employee after she bad-mouthed her supervisor on Facebook. The labor board charged that the company wrongfully denied the employee union representation during an investigatory interview, as well as “maintained and enforced an overly broad blogging and Internet posting policy.”

CAUTION: This Is Not A Green Light To Trash Talk Your Boss on Facebook

This complaint issued by the NLRB should not be interpreted to suggest that anything employees say on Facebook about their employer will be protected. It doesn’t do that.

Although the National Labor Relations Act bars employers from penalizing their employees for talking about workplace conditions (like wages) or forming a union with their coworkers, as noted on the NLRB’s own Facebook page and on Mashable, Facebook comments can lose protected status depending on a number of factors.

  1. Where the discussion takes place
  2. The subject matter
  3. The nature of the outburst
  4. Whether the comments were provoked by an employer’s unfair labor practice

Although workers’ speech online is still a relatively new medium for the labor board, their position on this case presents the real possibility that workers won’t have to fear speaking up, being heard, and communicating about work issues on Facebook in the future.

As The New York Times‘ Steven Greenhouse notes:

This is the first case in which the labor board has stepped in to argue that workers’ criticisms of their bosses or companies on a social networking site are generally a protected activity and that employers would be violating the law by punishing workers for such statements.

Implications for Online Organizing

Educating, mobilizing and organizing workers online is what our union does to assist traditional boots-on–the-ground union work. There are many tools that enable us to do our work as online organizers, and we certainly rely heavily on social media.

Why? Because with social media platforms like Facebook, we can help establish an environment where workers can freely talk to one another about their issues at work–whatever they may be. This is not so different than member-to-member organizing, except it takes place online and doesn’t require workers to be face-to-face in order to connect with one another.

The Bottom Line: As this investigation moves forward and the January 2011 hearing draw closer, we anticipate push back from the opposition. However, whatever happens, the outcome of this case will go a long way toward defining what employees can and cannot do when it comes to online communications and airing their work issues with their co-workers on Facebook.

This article was originally posted on SEIU.

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.


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