Can your boss make you wear a Fitbit?

Some 8 percent of employee wellness plans offer wearable fitness trackers to workers. Are the trackers really voluntary?

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
Fitbit's Alta HR device is displayed in New York in March 2017. Some 8 percent of employee wellness plans offer wearable fitness trackers to workers.

In some ways, the nine-day West Virginia teachers’ strike that ended March 6 echoed the momentous labor actions that have marked the Mountain State’s history. But the story also contained a plot device straight out of a cyberpunk future. 

A proposed change to West Virginia’s public worker health plan would have asked teachers to download a mobile fitness app called Go365 and earn points on it by using a  Fitbit or other fitness tracker designed to monitor the users's steps taken, heart rate, or other metrics. Those who declined, or who complied but failed to earn enough points, would face a penalty of $500 each year. 

The state scrapped the proposal, but it remains a sign of the times: As employers aim to trim costs and boost productivity, workers face increasing encouragement to purchase and use mobile devices, don wearables, and even accept electronic implants, all while being assured that the new tools are serving their best interests. The growing adoption of technology that some see as invasive raises questions of what exactly constitutes voluntary behavior in a wage economy.

“Very few things in the workplace are voluntary,” says attorney Paula Brantner, a senior advisor at Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit in Silver Spring, Md., that promotes employee rights. “You have an incentive to keep your job, to make your employer happy, to be on track for raises and promotions. There’s every incentive to cooperate with your employer and there’s a real disincentive to be viewed as uncooperative.”

Employers have long taken keen interest in the minute details of how workers conduct themselves, both on and off the clock. Beginning with Frederick Taylor at the turn of the 20th century, management consultants have boosted output by analyzing and standardizing the most minute movements of their workers. Around the same time, Henry Ford went as far as sending investigators into workers’ homes to inspect their health and hygiene habits. 

“The idea is old, but the technology is new,” says University of Michigan philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, author of the 2017 book “Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It).” “That enables far more intensive and precise monitoring and control than was possible in the pre-computer era.”

Beyond fitness

Currently just 8 percent of employer-sponsored wellness plans provide fitness-tracking bands, but they can be used for more than just ensuring workers stay active. And other potentially intrusive devices have started to pop up as well.

These trackers contribute data to what human resource managers call “people analytics,” an approach that big data and analytics bring to bear on decisions involving hiring, firing, and productivity.

It’s this sort of fine-grained analytics that Amazon was pursuing in 2016 when it filed two patents for wristbands that use ultrasonic pulses and radio transmissions to monitor the locations of employees’ hands relative to inventory bins, so that employers can “monitor performance of assigned tasks.”

Other companies are going deeper with electronic trackers, literally. Last summer, the Wisconsin-based vending-kiosk company Three Square Market announced that it would be offering its workers the opportunity to have radio-frequency identification chips implanted into their hands. According to the company, the rice-grain-sized chip would be injected between the thumb and forefinger, where it can be used to unlock doors, log in to computers, run photocopiers, and purchase snacks from break-room vending machines. More than 50 out of 80 workers at the company’s headquarters initially volunteered. 

But was the choice to accept the implants truly voluntary? “What we really need to do is recognize that the fact that you made a choice within a set of options cannot justify the set of options that is presented to you,” says Dr. Anderson. “Workers should have access to a lot of goods without having to cede overwhelming authority to their employers.”

“There needs to be just a broader acknowledgement of the necessity of these things in people’s lives, not just as the superficial social technologies but increasingly as the mundane ways that we get stuff done in our everyday lives,” says Julia Ticona, a postdoctoral researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York. “[We need] to really treat them instead of purely individual consumer devices, to treat them as a part of public infrastructure.”

Dr. Ticona helped draft an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court in Carpenter v. United States, a pending case that will determine whether historical location data gathered by cell towers is protected under the Fourth Amendment. The brief argues that cell phones are no longer “meaningfully voluntary” in modern life. 

Ticona’s research focuses on low-income and contingent workers, who rely on mobile phones to find and schedule work, trade shifts, and access government assistance. “For these folks, it’s where we really see the rubber hitting the road of this question between voluntary and mandatory, because of the economic coercion,” says Ticona. 

Ticona argues that government efforts to extend home broadband internet access to all Americans should more fully take mobile technology into account. “We don’t just sit at home at our desks and do homework on our laptop,” she says “It’s out in the world and it needs to travel with us.” 

For Dr. Anderson, one big step in curbing employers’ invasiveness is to decouple health insurance from employment, thereby removing much of the interest our bosses may have in our heart rates and waistlines. “We should recognize that employers have their own business and not try to corral them to be nannies for their employees,” she says.

Ms. Brantner agrees, seeing penalties for refusing fitness trackers as “a huge argument for single-payer health care.”

“Why should your health be the employer’s business?” she asks. “Well, the answer right now is because they’re footing the bill.”

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that several fitness tracking options were named in the state's original proposal.]

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