By Fran Slusarz,
Last week, or 347 news cycles ago, I wrote that the post-COVID workplace will not be as bad as we feared. Most employers will do the right thing and provide a safe workplace for their employees. We may not have jetpacks, but the country would find its way. Today? I’m just not feeling it. After several solid days of civil unrest in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody, and with the government’s increasingly militaristic response to same, I can’t muster the optimism to tell you things will be all right.
With that as a backdrop, I present The Workplace of Tomorrow II: Dystopia Rising. Like any good trilogy, the second story ends with our heroes at their lowest, facing certain defeat. While reading this, despair not: The Workplace of Tomorrow III will have a happily ever after. Trust me. I’m a lawyer.
The Surveillance Workplace
While researching Montana’s Wrongful Discharge in Employment Act (much more on this to come), I discovered that as of October 1, 2019, it is unlawful in Montana for an employer to force the implantation of a microchip on its employees. The employee must consent, and the employer cannot fire or refuse to hire anyone who does not want to be treated like livestock or an errant pet. Several other states are considering similar laws. I was delighted to find states making autonomy over one’s body a priority, but I could not find the problem these laws are meant to solve. No employers are pushing for 24/7 tracking of its employees and there exist no grassroots #StopTheChip movement.
It’s easy to be cynical and cast the law as a pointless gesture that gives Montana’s elected officials a “win,” but it touches upon real concern people have about their privacy and, in particular, electronic surveillance.
Momentary Digression: I Own No Foil Hats
Let me digress for a moment and assure you that I am not a privacy freak. I consider myself concerned about privacy, but probably not as much as I should be. I put security stickers over my cameras when I’m not using them and I rarely use location services on my phone because the idea of Tim Cook keeping tabs on me is creepy. Sometimes – but not often – I use a web browser with a Virtual Private Network. By contrast, I know my Internet Service Provider knows every website that has ever been visited by any device on my wifi network and the records can be subpoenaed. I have a Google Nest Hub in my kitchen that sometimes speaks when no one asked it anything. I have a collection of 5 or 6 passwords that I use for everything. I always sign up for the membership card to get the sale price, I do not have Radio Frequency Identification-blocking anything, and I own no aluminum foil-lined garments or headgear.
Digression Completed. Let’s Continue
Now that you have the context, you can decide how to take the rest of this article.
Back when going to work involved going somewhere, employers could tell if their employees were working by confirming that they were where they were supposed to be at the appointed time. That’s not as easy with a remote and mobile workforce. As a result, many employers use software to track computer use, and can easily check what time you started working, what websites you visited, and for how long.
A lot of states require employers to inform their employees that their computer use will be monitored, but when was the last time you read your employee handbook or the bulletin board in the lunchroom with all the employment law notices? That last one is a particular challenge when your workplace has been shut down for 3 months.
My plea to you: don’t do ANYTHING on your work computer that you don’t want your mother to read. Do your mother and your lawyer a favor. Believe me, I’ve had to sit through depositions while a smug opposing counsel read sexually explicit messages my client sent some rando from his work computer.
Point Taken, But What’s This Got to Do With COVID-19?
Contact-tracing is a time-honored weapon in fighting epidemics and pandemics. If you can get in touch with people who have been exposed before they have the chance to infect others, you can limit the spread of the disease. When a disease hits the level of “community spread” – i.e., so widespread it is almost impossible to track how a person came in contact with the disease, and to whom the person may have spread it. This is where technology can help, and your privacy can become an issue.
Every day, most Americans carry around a device with which our movements can be tracked: our mobile phones. Although we tend not to think about it, we willingly permit private companies to track our movement throughout the day as our devices ping nearby cell towers. The government can access this information immediately under exigent circumstances (i.e., a kidnapping), or with a search warrant.
Over the last several months, private companies have been working on ways to use our screen addiction for the public good, by developing contract tracing apps and notification tools to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Using such an app would be voluntary, but convincing us to download something that is designed to track your every movement and report it to the government – public health officials – is outside the comfort zone of many, many people.
To ease privacy concerns, yesterday, June 1, 2020, the Senate introduced the Exposure Notification Privacy Act, a nonpartisan bill to regulate contract tracing and exposure notification apps. It would ensure that any data collected for coronavirus cannot be used for commercial purposes and that users can request that their information be deleted at any time. It’s a tightrope walk: the ability to contact trace electronically, on a grand scale, can do wonders for containing COVID-19 and, ultimately, reopening the country. But, as Republican Senator Bill Cassidy (LA), stated, “If you ask most people, ‘Do you trust Google to respect your privacy?’ … they don’t trust Google.” Nothing personal, Google, but my Nest Hub does speak out of turn. Who knows what it reports back to the baseship.
Employer Use of Tracking Apps
There is also a growing concern about how employers may use this technology. Remember those wacky microchip implantation laws? Well, it is grows from the fact that employers in some sectors have their employees use wearable tracking devices at work, ostensibly for efficiency and productivity. Amazon, for example, is famous for its tracking of warehouse employees, including the time they take in the bathroom, and terminating them if they fall under threshold.
You may not wish to have contact tracing software on your phone, but if you carry a phone issued by your employer, you may not have that choice. Indeed, employers are driving the development of contact tracing tech, with companies like PriceWaterhouseCoopers offering an app that helps businesses “access precise proximity information” and “receive near real-time information about whether your people may be at risk for exposure.”
Welcome to The Workplace of Tomorrow II: Dystopia Rising. A world where your employer knows where you are every minute of the day, every person with whom you interact, and how poorly you play Vegas rules solitaire. I look back at my earliest office job, where I transcribed dictation tapes on a Wang VS word processing terminal, and sigh.
For more information about this article or to speak with one of our employment attorneys, please contact Carey & Associates, P.C. at 203-255-4150 or send an email to email@example.com.