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COVID-19 Tracking: Break the Union

Employers want to use tracking devices to monitor employees trying to organize

Brian Young's picture
Jun 26, 2020

Workers are heading back to the office, jobsite, or warehouse and are witnessing a new type of working environment. At almost all workplaces, some changes have been made, whether it is a mandatory rule about wearing masks, more hand sanitizer, workspaces moved to six feet apart, or staggered shifts. While these are all commonsense ways to prevent another outbreak, some employers have begun to use technology to track their workers.

While the companies claim that this technology gives them the ability to contact trace potential infection points, it also allows the bosses to track the movements of their workers. At Amazon, technology is being tested that sends a real-time warning when employees get too close to each other. While this can be used to stop employees from getting within six feet of each other during COVID-19 it could also be used in the future to prevent workers from talking union to each other.

This technology can also be used by companies to determine the productivity of their workforce. Much like trucking companies that added GPS to their trucks, tracking technology will give bosses real-time information about how fast an Amazon picker is moving, which employees are hanging out at the water cooler, or the secret lunch meeting employees are holding to organize.

"The risk is that [tracking technologies] become an avenue for more extensive data collection that's really unconnected with the public health emergency and they will continue on after the public health emergency is over," said Pauline Kim, an employment law expert at Washington University in St. Louis in an interview with Politico.

In many states, employers have a wide latitude to force employees to wear trackers or to install them on company devices like your phone or computer. They also have the ability to fire an employee who refuses to wear one. According to Kim, employers may even be able to force employees to wear the devices outside of work. While there are differing legal decisions on this, it is definitely in the realm of possibility that companies will use COVID-19 as an excuse to try tracking workers when not at work, by claiming that workers are more susceptible to the virus outside of work.

Privacy experts warn that tracing apps could be a slippery slope that helps normalize a new level of surveillance. At some point, most employees will simply forget they have the app on their phone or that  the watch they are wearing is reporting their location to their boss in real-time. Of course, that is until they slip up and decide to leave the office a few minutes early or take an extended lunch break.

Instead of allowing employers to track the spread of cases, public health officials say that it should be left up to the state. They say that it doesn’t do anyone any good if Amazon knows they have an outbreak in their warehouse and don’t tell anyone. This is a real fear as multiple companies have been caught failing to inform health officials and even their employees that they may have an issue.

With dozens of apps, wearable bands, and other devices being created, it is only a matter of time before more employers begin launching their tracking programs. With no guidance from Trump on what is and is not allowed as workers return to work, employees and their unions are sure to have a fight on their hands to prevent the workers from being constantly tracked in a post COVID world.

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