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What are the limits on electronic monitoring of workers' behavior?

By Susan GilbertSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 1987

WHEN Mary Williams reports to work as a reservations sales agent for United Airlines in Los Angeles, she knows that her supervisor will listen in on her telephone conversations, making sure that she uses key sales phrases and doesn't spend too much time with each customer. But Ms. Williams hadn't realized that her gossip was being monitored too - until her supervisor threatened to discipline her for using foul language. ``When I explained that I used this language between calls, my supervisor wrote a report saying that I gave her a hard time,'' Ms. Williams recalls. ``Then I told her I was going to complain to the American Civil Liberties Union, and she said she'd tear up my file if I didn't take the matter any further.'' Ms. Williams has since reported the incident to the ACLU and testified before the California Legislature.

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Mary Williams is but one of an estimated 4 to 6 million employees whose performance and behavior on the job now come under the scrutiny of electronic eyes. Using technology that has only become available within the last five years, corporations aim to boost productivity and prevent crime - particularly computer crime, which by some accounts costs American industry $1 billion a year.

The crucial difference between the new high-tech supervisors and the old-fashioned human kind is that electronic surveillance can be done without a worker's knowledge. The ACLU charges that this is an invasion of privacy. ``Employers are learning more about employees than they need to know,'' says Karen Ringen, administrator of the ACLU's Project on Privacy and Technology. ``This has incredible potential for abuse.''

And employees speak of unbearable stress. ``You see people around you on the job crying,'' says Williams. ``A lot of people quit because of the pressure.''

According to Dan Sheehy, manager of media relations for United Airlines, ``We're looking for our reservations clerks to be friendly and to do their job in as short a time as possible - taking no more than 3 minutes on each call.'' He asserts that sales have gone up since the monitoring system was installed.

New computer software enables employers to set production quotas, count a typist's keystrokes, and root out people who are too slow. Employers can install software that flashes subliminal messages to computer operators, such as ``work faster.'' Systems that link computers and telephones can be used to identify the parties being called from each extension - be they personal friends, business competitors, or union organizers.

Video cameras, once installed only for security purposes in elevators and lobbies, have become smaller and less expensive. As a result, they now guard computer rooms and supply closets and in some cases peer at employees even when they're off duty.

Although the ACLU and other experts concede that reported abuses of electronic surveillance equipment are rare, they cite some ominous examples:

In March, nurses at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md., discovered a hidden camera in the women's locker room. Hospital administrators said the camera was put there to watch an employee thought to be stealing narcotics.

A nurse's aid at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Waco, Texas, was fired last year for sleeping on the job because a videotape showed him leaning back in his chair. The employee, who said he had not been sleeping, was denied the opportunity to defend himself.