March 27, 2008

Biometric Devices Help Companies Streamline Operations

Biometric devices, such as those that identify people using their fingerprints, are beginning to replace the old process of "Ëœpunching in' with timecards, as employers look for new ways to improve efficiency and streamline their payroll operations.

It's already happening at companies such as Hilton hotels, Dunkin' Donuts, and even the U.S. Marine Corps, whose employees use the new device to log their arrival and departure times by pressing a hand or finger to a scanner.  And other companies, large and small alike, are embracing the new technology to automate outdated record-keeping systems that rely on paper time sheets.

However, some workers have complained that the efforts to track their movements are excessive.

"They don't even have to hire someone to harass you anymore. The machine can do it for them," said Ed Ott, executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO.

"The palm print thing really grabs people as a step too far," he told the Associated Press.

Consulting firm International Biometric Group estimated that sales of biometric devices were $635 million last year, and the group is forecasting industry sales of over $1 billion by 2011.

Campbell, Calif-based Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies, a leading manufacturer of hand scanners, told Associated Press it had sold at least 150,000 devices to Dunkin' Donuts, McDonalds, Hilton hotels and to U.S. Marine Corps bases for use in tracking civilian employees.

In New York City, where officials are spending $410 million to install an automated attendance tracking system that may eventually be used by 160,000 city workers, protests are particularly intense. Many members of Local 375 of the Civil Service Technical Guild rallied Tuesday against the plan. 

The scanners have also annoyed planners, draftsmen and architects in the city's Parks Department, which began implementing the devices last year.

"Psychologically, I think it has had a huge impact on the work force here because it is demeaning and because it's a system based on mistrust," Ricardo Hinkle, a landscape architect who designs city parks, told the Associated Press.

Hinkle said the timekeeping system was a bureaucratic intrusion on working professionals who never thought twice about putting in extra time on a project they cared about, and relied on human managers for flexibility with work hours.

"The creative process isn't one that punches in and punches out," Hinkle said.

Matthew Kelly, a spokesman for NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, told the AP the system isn't meant to be intrusive and has clear advantages over the old paper time sheets and punch clocks.

The city expects to realize $60 million in annual cost savings by modernizing a complicated record keeping system that now requires one full-time timekeeper for every 100 to 250 employees. CityTime, as the new system is called, would free up thousands of city employees to do less administrative paper-pushing.

Another benefit of the system lies in preventing city employees from taking unauthorized time off and falsifying timecards.   Prior to CityTime, the city's Department of Investigation had been making several of these charges each year.

New York City is not the only place to embrace the new biometric technology. Large cities such as Chicago and as small towns such as Tahlequah, Okla., have turned in recent years to fingerprint-driven ID systems to record employee work hours. And many of these workplaces have adopted the new systems without objection from employees, especially those already accustomed to using timecards and punching a clock.

But critics remain, with The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees the first to complain of the new biometric identification devices two years ago, after the city of Pittsburgh put forth a proposal to install the fingerprint scanners.

"We had a lot of questions, a lot of concerns, and so far they haven't put it in," Richard Caponi, AFCME's Council 84 Director, told the Associated Press.

Jon Mooney, Ingersoll Rand's general manger of biometrics, said the privacy concerns are baseless because the hand scanners don't keep large databases of people's fingerprints, but instead only keep a record of their hand shape.

Nevertheless, officials in New York said they are concerned the machines could someday be used for purposes beyond just determining which employees skip work, such as nitpicking honest workers or invading their privacy.

"The bottom line is that these palm scanners are designed to exercise more control over the workforce," Claude Fort, president of Local 375, told AP. "They aren't there for security purposes. It has nothing to do with productivity. ... It is about control, and that is what makes us nervous."