Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

From Whole Foods to Amazon, Invasive Technology Controlling Workers Is More Dystopian Than You Think

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

thor bensonYou’ve been fired. According to your employer’s data, your facial expressions showed you were insubordinate and not trustworthy. You also move your hands at a rate that is considered substandard. Other companies you may want to work for could receive this data, making it difficult for you to find other work in this field.

That may sound like a scenario straight out of a George Orwell novel, but it’s the future many American workers could soon be facing.

In early February, media outlets reported that Amazon had received a patent for ultrasonic wristbands that could track the movement of warehouse workers’ hands during their shifts. If workers’ hands began moving in the wrong direction, the wristband would buzz, issuing an electronic corrective. If employed, this technology could easily be used to further surveil employees who already work under intense supervision.

Whole Foods, which is now owned by Amazon, recently instituted a complex and punitive inventory system where employees are graded based on everything from how quickly and effectively they stock shelves to how they report theft. The system is so harsh it reportedly causes employees enough stress to bring them to tears on a regular basis.

UPS drivers, who often operate individually on the road, are now becoming increasingly surveilled. Sensors in every UPS truck track when drivers’ seatbelts are put on, when doors open and close and when the engines start in order to monitor employee productivity at all times.

The technology company Steelcase has experimented with monitoring employees’ faces to judge their expressions. The company claims that this innovation, which monitors and analyzes workers’ facial movements throughout the work day, is being used for research and to inform best practices on the job. Other companies are also taking interest in this kind of mood-observing technology, from Bank of America to Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc.

These developments are part of a larger trend of workers being watched and judged—often at jobs that offer low pay and demand long hours. Beyond simply tracking worker performance, it is becoming more common for companies to monitor the emails and phone calls their employees make, analyzing personal traits along with output.

Some companies are now using monitoring techniques—referred to as “people analytics”—to learn as much as they can about you, from your communication patterns to what types of websites you visit to how often you use the bathroom. This type of privacy invasion can cause employees immense stress, as they work with the constant knowledge that their boss is aware of their every behavior—and able to use that against them as they see fit.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute at Cornell University, tells In These Times that the level of surveillance workers are facing is increasing exponentially.

“If you look at what some people call ‘people analytics,’ it’s positively frightening,” Maltby says. “People analytics devices get how often you talk, the tone of your voice, where you are every single second you’re at work, your body language, your facial expressions and something called ‘patterns of interaction.’” He explains that some of these devices even record what employees say at work.

According to some experts, this high level of employee surveillance may actually harm the companies that use these techniques.

“In general, people experience more stress when they feel that someone is looking over their shoulder, real or virtual,” Michael Childers, director at the School for Workers, tells In These Times. “There is a large body of research documenting that stressful workplaces can potentially lead to many problems that reduce company profits, including increased turnover, more sick days used, higher workplace compensation costs, and ironically, even lower productivity.”

Richard Wolff, a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, tells In These Times that this type of surveillance “deepens the antagonism, mutual suspicion, and hostility of employer relative to employee. It degrades worker morale and will probably fail—leading employers to conclude not that such surveillance is a bad idea, but rather than they need to automate to get rid of workers altogether.”

While this level of worker surveillance may be alarming, it has so far gone largely unchecked. Congress has never passed a law to regulate employee surveillance, Maltby says, and he doesn’t think it will any time soon. However, he says that either Congress or the Supreme Court could finally decide that employers have gone too far when they start tracking employee movement during a worker’s time off.

“The fight we’re gearing up for is [tracking] behavior off duty,” Maltby says. “Every cell phone in America has GPS capabilities baked into it,” along with cameras and microphones. Maltby worries that employers could soon begin using this technology to track the behavior of their employees outside of work. If this were to happen, Maltby believes U.S. lawmakers could be compelled to step in.

One the of the fears that labor and privacy advocates hold is that, over time, workers could get used to these types of invasions, and begin accepting them as a normal part of the job.

“The first time people hear about the newest privacy invasion, they get extremely angry, but eventually they just get used to it,” Maltby says. For example, at many jobs drug tests are now seen as standard, despite the fact that they invade employees’ private lives by monitoring their behaviors outside of work.

At a time of soaring inequality, low-wage workers are bearing the brunt of efforts to increase productivity and profits. The rise of these new tracking techniques show that companies are moving toward increasing their control over the lives of their employees.

While workers at the bottom of the wage scale may be the first to face such dystopian working conditions, other industries could soon embrace them. If we don’t want to live and work under the constant supervision of a far-away boss, now is the time to speak up and push back.

This article was originally published in In These Times on June 4, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Thor Benson is a traveling writer, currently located in Los Angeles, Calif. Benson was born in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. His journalism has been featured in: The Atlantic, Wired, Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, MTV News, Slate, Salon, Vice, ATTN:, Mic, In These Times, Paste, The New Republic, The Verge, Fast Company, Truthdig and elsewhere. He has been interviewed on The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann, Ring of Fire, HuffPost Live, The Lip, The Young Turks, in upcoming documentaries and elsewhere. 

Why Unions Are Essential to Tackling the Technology Challenge to Good Jobs

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Image: Richard KirschNew technology is keeping more and more workers stuck in low-wage jobs, and it’s society’s responsibility to make sure those jobs still have dignity and fair wages.

With robots taking over factories and warehouses, toll collectors and cashiers increasingly being replaced by automation and even legal researchers being replaced by computers, the age-old question of whether technology is a threat to jobs is back with us big time. Technological change has been seen as a threat to jobs for centuries, but the history tells that while technology has destroyed some jobs, the overall impact has been to create new jobs, often in new industries. Will that be true after the information revolution as it was in the industrial revolution?

In an article in The New York Times, David Autor and David Dorn, who have just published research on this question, argue that the basic history remains the same: while many jobs are being disrupted, new jobs are being created and many jobs will not be replaceable by computers. While there is good news in their analysis for some in the middle-class, their findings reinforce the need to organize workers in lower-skilled jobs to demand decent wages.

The authors’ research found that while routine jobs are being replaced by computers, the number of both “abstract” and “manually intensive” jobs increased. In their article in the Times, the authors describe the new jobs:

At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design. People in these jobs typically have high levels of education and analytical capability, and they benefit from computers that facilitate the transmission, organization and processing of information.

On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers. But they are straightforward for humans, requiring primarily innate abilities like dexterity, sightedness and language recognition, as well as modest training. These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.

As the authors conclude, “This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.”

When it comes to addressing this attack on the middle class, the authors offer some hope, but not for those low-wage workers. They argue that a large number of skilled jobs, requiring specialized training—although not necessarily a college education—will not be replaceable by computers. These include people who care for our health like medical paraprofessionals, people who care for our buildings like plumbers, people who help us use technology (I was chatting online just yesterday to get tech support) and many others. Because these jobs do require higher levels of skills, they should be able to demand middle-class wages.

But what about those housekeepers, delivery truck drivers and fast-food workers, like those who are taking actions around the country today against fast-food chains to demand better pay. The authors do not offer a path to the middle class for them.

If history is an example here as well, we should remember that lower-skilled work does not have to come with low pay. The workers who stood on assembly lines in the 1930s did not have a college education or years of specialized training; they fought for the right to organize unions and demanded high enough wages to support their families.

This Labor Day, as more and more workers are stuck in the growing number of low-wage jobs, causing enormous stress for their families while keeping the economy sluggish, we need to look to the examples of new ways of organizing workers who can not be replaced by technology. There’s the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who organized drivers to successfully win living wages and a health and disability fund. Or the successful boycott of Hyatt Hotels, leading to an agreement with UNITE HERE to not fight organizing campaigns in their hotels.

We need to support organizing by modernizing our labor laws to account for the large number of workers not currently or adequately protected, the new ways that work is organized and the global economy.

The lesson from the Autor–Dorn research is that technology doesn’t have to destroy the middle class. What will destroy the middle class is our failure as a society to provide dignity to all workers. That’s what fast-food workers and their community-labor supporters are fighting for across the country.

This article originally appeared in The Next New Deal Blog on August 29, 2013, and was cross-posed on AFL-CIO Now on August 30, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a senior adviser to USAction and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Apple’s Overseas Jobs, The Tech Industry, And The American Economy

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Alyssa RosenbergOne of the big dynamics in the debate over SOPA and PIPA is who’s getting money from whom. The entertainment industry’s currently spending a great deal more on lobbying than the tech community is; MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd has threatened to turn off Hollywood campaign contributions to Democrats if SOPA or a form of it doesn’t pass; and both Democrats and Republicans are attempting to position themselves for the future. What a big, and usefully clear, New York Times story about Apple’s decision to move much of its work overseas makes clear, though, is while the tech industry may eventually have more to offer in terms of lobbying cash and campaign contributions, it may not have much to offer Democrats in terms of creating critically important American manufacturing jobs. In a conversation between Steve Jobs and President Obama before the former’s death, the Times reported that this exchange took place about the Apple jobs that have moved overseas:

Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.

Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.

The president’s question touched upon a central conviction at Apple. It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.

It’s absolutely true that there would have to be radical changes in the American economy to retrain workers, to move huge parts of the supply chain back to the United States, and perhaps most difficult, to get American workers to expect a vastly different standard of living or to get Apple executives to accept slower development times and more expensive production costs. I’d argue that American workers have already made substantial compromises on the former proposition. But I don’t foresee a future where companies are going to move toward the latter out of the goodness of their own hearts. There’s no question that companies have a right to maximize profits, and that if they don’t care how they’re perceived or about creating a sense of moral obligation to buy their products, they have every right to produce their products wherever and under whatever conditions they can get away with. But if they’re going to take that approach, I sort of wish they’d be as blunt about it as possible, so we don’t risk mistaking shiny toys for some sort of greater good.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on January 23, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a B.A. in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American ProspectThe New RepublicNational Journal, and The Daily Beast.

CES

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Image: Bob RosnerSince technology today is mostly synonymous with business, your intrepid blogger decided to journey to the bleeding edge of technology, the annual Consumer Electronics  Show (a.k.a. CES), in Las Vegas. It’s a rough job, somebody has got to do it.

I’ve read a lot of articles on this year’s conference. Most talk up tablet computers and 3D everything. And yes, both were here in abundance. But to discuss CES and spend most of your time discussing two types of technology is like obsessing how many cup holders are in a car you’re thinking about buying. Factually correct, but mostly missing the point.

CES is wretched excess in a place that invented the term, Las Vegas. Vegas is one of the few places today that allows people to smoke anywhere and then charges you for a hit of oxygen.

It feels like the amount of floor spaced dedicated to the world’s leading technology trade show is somewhere between the size of the State of Iowa and New Jersey. But it felt more like the size of Texas to my poor feet.

Sure there are 3D TVs, amazingly small devices of all types, cars with more technology than the average office building and more languages being spoken than the United Nations. Along with high-technology cigarettes, “iGrill” an application that gets your iPhone and iPad involved in grilling your steaks and a variety of hi-tech bidets.

But that is barely scratching the surface. There are entire hotel ballrooms filled with switches, cable and plugs of all sorts. Think of it as everything related to all the technology that most of us devour at work on a regular basis.

Which all got me thinking about the famous line from the movie Spinal Tap. “There is a thin line between clever and stupid.” I’ve never been in a place where that line is more porous than CES. The brilliant is right next to the craziest thing you’ve ever seen. The only problem is that you don’t always know which side of the line YOU are on.

Let’s face it, we’ve all made fun of technology that we quickly find essential, stuff that we made fun of only weeks earlier (yes iPad, I’m talking to you). CES is interesting for it’s glimpse of new technology, but it’s even better as your own personal Rochard test, about who we are and where we’re all going.

But the best part of being in Las Vegas for CES is what else is going on in town. No, I’m not talking about Elvis impersonators, the ubiquitous leafletors on the Strip, seeing if Cirque du Soleil has hit double digits on the number of shows it has in Vegas or the buffets (my favorite is the $39.99 all day pass at eight different buffets, turning gluttony into a science here).

No, my favorite is how Vegas manages to pair people like Guy Kawasaki and Ron Jeremy, both spoke in Vegas this weekend. Kawasaki is the former evangelist with Apple Computer and he spoke at CES on his big ideas about the future of technology. Jeremy also has had the word big tossed his way a time or two, and he spoke at the annual Adult conference, also in Vegas this same weekend.

Nerds, porn stars and Vegas. Okay, it may sound to you like the end of civilization at you know it, but it makes for a very entertaining weekend. Back to CES…

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Sharing Information or Cheating, You Decide

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerI read an article about a school in Washington State that allows students to search the Internet during tests.

Yes, you read that correctly. Students at Mill Creek Middle School can go online during tests to search for information. But some schools don’t stop there; they even allow students to beam or IM information to other students during a test.

Beyond wishing that we had such tools when we were in middle school, this raises a great question about the essence of education. Is the goal to cram information in our heads, or should the goal be the know how to get the information that you need?

Let’s not forget that a student can burn a lot of time searching for information on the web. Or information that is beamed to them by a fellow student could be wrong. Rather than seeing this sharing of information as cheating, I believe that it is creating a generation of students who are more discerning about information—where to get it, how to evaluate it and how to use it.

What does this have to do with business? Plenty.

As more of us find our interactions with coworkers limited to three sentence emails, we are rapidly moving from organizations with many brains to constellations of individuals who are increasingly flying by the seat of their pants as they go through their work day.

Think about it. When was the last time that you brainstormed with a colleague over coffee or lunch? When was the last time that you networked or checked in with a colleague that you hadn’t seen in a while? Heck, when was the last time you didn’t eat lunch at your desk?

Technology was supposed to bring us all together. Yet, the connections between people are at an all time low.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a 40 hour a week coffee klatch. But I do believe that each one of us should all institute a policy where we follow up ten emails with a phone call and twenty with an actual face-to-face conversation. (Remember those?)

Organizations talk a great deal about team work. That people are the greatest asset. Yet, when it comes to paying people, recognition and priorities, it’s all about individual effort.

Great teamwork isn’t cheating. But to achieve it organizations need to do a much better job of cultivating it, rewarding it and encouraging it. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our organizations truly became the sum of their parts?

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Also check out his newly revised best-seller “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Some Things I Took Away From The Organizing Conference Last Week

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

Image: Richard NegriLast week I attended the Web 2.0 Organizing Conference in NYC. It was an incredible event packed with hundreds of online organizers from around the country.

While I think the conference was a tremendous success, I think we, in labor, have a long way to go. We have the daunting task of internal organizing so that we can actually do 1/2 of the great things we talk about with online organizing and mobilizing. We have to remember that some unions’ web sites still look they were built out by a third grader. There appears to be an underlying fear among old school unionists to do anything on the web — and most probably because they cannot control the interactivity — or they don’t think they can. This is where we become educators.

We have to educate our bosses on the technology in a way that they can understand, and this is not easy for a whole host of reasons. Some of us don’t know how to explain why some social media tools work and others don’t. We don’t know how to explain that Convio is capable of a lot more than sending a mass email, etc. We can talk about this stuff until we are blue in the face, but often times we just need a shot at doing something to prove that it works. Do it now and apologize later? Maybe.

There are two different things at play for a lot of unions. One is actual organizing and the other is outreach – they are two different things that are frequently carried out by the same individual. (I think one day this will change. I think eventually the unions will realize that they need a team of workers to carry out the online organizing, mobilizing and education and will not put the task to one or two people only. I also think we are not there yet). For now, the same person who is clicking away at Twitter a few times a day is also the person who is getting flyers on web sites and sending emails to workers to get the flyers to print and distribute. The same person should also be building out technology to mine workers’ names and information to turn over to the boots-on-ground organizers. And this is where it can get very tricky for traditional organizing models.

At the conference something was said in one of the workshops that really struck a chord with me. If a worker’s first contact with a union is through a web site form, so should the second — usually with an email. Too often unions will realize they can get a worker’s information mined by the sites but then they want someone to go house visit with the worker immediately after. It shouldn’t, in my opinion, work quite that way. (In other words, I agree with the person who said this at the conference).  It should be: initial contact web site – second contact email. Sure, by the third or fourth correspondence with the worker, have them meet up with someone from the organizing committee, but they might not be ready sooner than that. This is why an online organizer needs to make assessments of the workers in the same way an organizer on ground has to.

The education and mobilization part is becoming easier and easier. We have tools like Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, YouTube. There are progressive blogs welcoming labor’s messaging, such as FireDogLake, Daily Kos and Huffington Post. Then there are labor specific blogs like UnionReview.com where we can get to the meat of things if we need to.

Of course it is important to comment on stories we see — and that is a brand of online activism the same organizer who is mining workers’ names from the sites must motivate people to do. If we see an article in the mainstream media news that is totally counter everything we believe in as working class union workers, then take ten minutes and leave a comment, sway the discussion and get yourselves heard.

If there is one thing that is clear to me after a few years of doing this stuff it is this — never before have we had the opportunity to actually be the media. I talk about this in workshops at the union I work for and wherever else I am asked to talk, it is pivotal. We have to take into consideration that once upon a time it was a talked-at media. We were talked at from places like the NY Times, CNN, etc. Now journalism is an interactive trade. We are still talked at, but now we can talk back, instantly. If we stay as apathetic online as many of us are in the shops we work at, nothing is going to change. And change is what everyone is crying for.

Finally, I think it is important to mention that some of us who are doing online mobilization and education fall into the rut of singing to the choir. I have been guilty of this also. When we have made some ground on blogs or web sites, got heard and — even better – understood, why not move on to the next site or blog? Don’t get caught up in saying the same thing over and over to the same people. It can be a challenge because sometimes we don’t know if our work is ever really done, but who doesn’t like a challenge?

Do you want to be part of the change or would you rather sit back and hope for the best?

This article originally appeared in UnionReview.com on December 12, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

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