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Blue Digital Collars: Tech Helps Companies Track Employees

Image: Ironworkers use cell phones to take photos at One World Trade Center on April 30, 2012 in New York City.

Ironworkers use cell phones to take photos at One World Trade Center on April 30, 2012 in New York City. Mark Lennihan / Pool via Getty Images

These days, being “on the clock” means more than just punching a time card. New apps and gadgets are making it possible for companies to track everything from the location to the conversations of their employees.

In 2011, Dean Logan was managing a roofing company in northern New Jersey. He was looking for a better way to track the hours and locations of his 40 employees, so he came up with a service called Labor Sync.

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Instead of filling out a time card, his employees now opened a smartphone app, and checked into work sites when they arrived. It not only tracked when they came into work, but where they were checking in from —something that prevented them from starting the work day early from the comfort of their own bed.

“Fewer employees complained about it than I thought,” Logan told NBC News. “The people who complain, they are usually the ones who are guilty of stealing time.”

Logan decided to work on Labor Sync full-time, selling it to businesses as a way to cut down on time spent dealing with time cards.

Once the feature is approved by Apple, Labor Sync will be able to provide real-time location data as well, letting employers keep tab of all of their employees on a single map as they move around. The app will even be able to tell if a phone is moving or whether an employee has placed it on a table at work before skipping off to the pub for a beer.

This kind of technology is everywhere. Public utilities can use software from ARCOS to tell which workers are closest to the site of an accident so that they can rush over and restore service. (Both Con Edison and American Electric Power use the software to find available workers during outages, representatives told NBC News, but don't track the exact location of their workers, a result of negotiations with labor unions).

At eating establishments across the country, managers use a program called Restaurant Guard to keep an eye on the activity of their waiters in order to cut down on employee theft.

Last year, The Container Store replaced some of its walkie-talkies with Wi-Fi-enabled wearables from Dallas-based start-up Theatro. The staff uses it to talk to each other, while management uses it to make sure employees are where they are most needed on the sales floor.

“There are no legal issues here,” Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, told NBC News. “If you are on duty, your boss has a right to know where you are.”

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Companies like Hitachi and Sociometric Solutions are taking that concept further with ID cards equipped with microphones that can track someone’s location and the 411 on their conversations: how long they last, how energetic they are and the identities of the people talking.

Most employers have not gone as far as keeping dibs on water cooler conversations. There is no shortage of companies, however, using GPS to track the locations of their employees, Maltby said.

That is not really a legal concern in a store or on a construction site, Maltby said. Where things get tricky is when employers are tracking their employees out in the field.

Checking in on workers — like food delivery guys with their own cars — after they have clocked out is "probably illegal," he said. These are uncharted legal waters, but with so many people being tracked, there is a decent chance that the issue will come up in court soon. Meanwhile, being monitored on the job is just something that employees might have to deal with.

"Employers ought to tell people that they are being tracked," Maltby said, "but there is no law saying that they have to."