WASHINGTON / CATHERINE COLLINS : Bill Would Require Notices When Bosses Snoop on Employees

CATHERINE COLLINS is a Washington writer

Monitoring or spying? After years of debate by employees and employers nationwide, momentum is growing in Congress for a federal law to regulate the use of high-technology tools that surreptitiously observe employee performance.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee's subcommittee on employment and productivity recently held hearings on the privacy for consumers and workers bill (S. 516), sponsored by Sens. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.).

"Unrestrained surveillance of workers has turned many modern offices into electronic sweatshops," Simon said. "S. 516 does not say that electronic monitoring should not be used. What it does say is that electronic monitoring should not be abused. Employees should not be forced to give up their freedom, dignity or sacrifice their health when they go to work."

For those working in jobs that use computers and telephones to interact with customers, such as the airline, telecommunications and telemarketing industries, the legislation could change working conditions significantly.

The bill would require employers who engage in electronic monitoring to provide affected employees with written notice about the forms of surveillance used, its frequency and the type of data collected. When surveillance is sporadic, the employer would be required to provide notice in the form of a signal light or a beeping tone.

Under the bill, workers would be allowed access to the data collected about them and employers would be prohibited from gathering personal information and from disclosing any information to outsiders. The legislation would create civil penalties for violations.

For years, employers have used computers to track how many seconds it takes a worker to switch between calls, to count the number of keystrokes a worker makes in an hour and to listen in on phone calls. Employers say these methods are necessary to monitor employee efficiency and customer service.

But employees and some advocate groups contend that productivity declines under such surveillance, which they say creates a stressful and fearful environment.

"I have always felt that there was someone else in my headset, someone in my keyboard waiting to punish me for the smallest infraction," an airline reservations agent who had been monitored for 27 years told the Senate hearing.

Cindia Cameron, an organizer for the national women's group 9 to 5, described punishable infractions in some workplaces, such as a reservations agent who was reprimanded for using a total of 23 seconds to switch between calls in an eight-hour shift.

"The technology allows an employer to cross a line from monitoring work to monitoring the worker," Cameron said in an interview. "This legislation is not a cure-all and it won't address all the problems, but it is an important step to get a hold of the technology that is out there and set certain limits on the way it can be used."

The business community objects to restricting electronic surveillance, arguing that it has good uses in the workplace.

"Monitoring has been found to be a very effective management and training tool," said Lawrence A. Fineran, assistant vice president of the National Assn. of Manufacturers. "Computer-aided manufacturing should be seen as helpful to productive workers, since subjective perceptions--such as personality conflicts with a supervisor--will be overridden by objective analysis."

Panel Backs Bid to Aid Manufacturing

In another effort to level the playing field for international business, the Senate Commerce Committee has unanimously approved legislation to establish a government-industry collaborative effort to develop advanced manufacturing technology.

The manufacturing strategy bill (S. 1330), sponsored by Sens. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), is part of a comprehensive package of bills designed to help restore U.S. economic strength and ability to compete internationally.

"In 10 of 12 key emerging technologies, the Japanese are beating the United States," Gore said. "Nearly 15% of all research and development dollars spent in Germany are for industrial development. Barely one-half of one percent of U.S. research and development spending goes for the same purpose. We can't sit back and let the competition move forward. American jobs and American workers will be left in the dust."

The bill would create a new public-private project to develop and test new generic computer-controlled manufacturing systems and communications networks that could be used to create prototypes for manufacturing tasks. An industry-led National Quality Laboratory would be set up to share the best manufacturing practices with small businesses nationwide, and an advisory commission would be established to recommend ways to increase investments and apply new technologies.

The legislative package was inspired in part by Japan's Intelligent Manufacturing Systems project, according to congressional staffer. The project is supposed to coordinate Japanese manufacturing systems globally.

Democrats in Congress would like to use this bill to apply technology that has been developed by the government to the private sector. Although there are an increasing number of dissenting voices, the Bush Administration continues to oppose such measures.

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