DANBURY, Conn. — Ciro Viento commands a platoon of 110 garbage trucks, so when a caller complained after seeing one of the blue and white trash tanks speeding down Route 22, Viento didn’t know which driver to blame. Until he checked his computer.
With a few taps on the keyboard, Viento zeroed in on the driver of one particular front-loader — which, the screen showed, had been on that very road at 7:22 a.m., doing 51 miles per hour in a zone restricted to 35. Gotcha.
More employers are adopting technology like the system used by Viento’s company. As they do, many workers who have long enjoyed the freedom of the road are rankling over the boss’ newfound power to watch their every move — via satellite.
The technology, global positioning systems, is hardly new. But using GPS to track workers and vehicles is catching on with a growing number of business and government employers, bent on improving productivity and customer service, and keeping tabs on labor costs.
“If you’re not out there baby-sitting them, you don’t know how long it takes to do the route. The guy could be driving around the world, he could be at his girlfriend’s house,” said Viento of Automated Waste Disposal Inc., a commercial and household trash hauler doing business in western Connecticut and neighboring New York counties. “Now there’s literally no place for them to hide.”
Some long-haul trucking companies have used GPS to manage their fleets for several years. But the range of employers adopting GPS — usually fitted in vehicles or in cell phones and other devices workers carry on the job — is broadening, particularly among companies dispatching large numbers of service technicians, in the building trades and others whose workers span wide territory.
UPS Inc., for example, will distribute new hand-held computers to its 100,000 U.S. delivery truck drivers early next year, each equipped with a GPS receiver. The company says the feature will not be used to monitor workers, but to alert them when they’re at the wrong address or help them identify an unfamiliar location.
But for many of the employers adopting the technology, including many smaller firms, the primary benefit is not just the ability to smooth business operations. They want to keep closer track of workers who aren’t always doing what they’re supposed to be doing, even though they’re on the clock.
This past summer, for example, managers at Metropolitan Lumber & Hardware in New York worried when a new driver dispatched to a delivery just six blocks away still hadn’t arrived after 3 1/2 hours. But using GPS, dispatchers soon tracked him down, “goofing off” on the other side of Manhattan, said Larry Charity, the company’s information technology manager.
“There’s less of that now that they know they’re being tracked,” he said.
Other employers are taking a similar approach, not just to track workers, but to influence their behavior.
“The capabilities of people at the dispatch level are becoming more and more, I’d say, almost omnipresent,” said Ron Stearns, an analyst who follows the GPS industry for consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. “Not only to monitor an employee in the field, but to govern what they do.”
GPS, developed for the military in the 1970s, keys off a constellation of satellites transmitting signals from space. At its most basic, GPS allows a user to locate a person or object carrying a receiver.
But the systems being installed by employers can do much more. Companies are harnessing GPS to tell them how long their employees and vehicles have been at a specific location, what direction they’re heading in and how fast they’re moving. Workers are expected to use GPS-equipped systems to clock in away from the office, and log the time spent and activities performed at each stop along the way.
Most of the systems can be set to alert a company if their employee spends too much time at a given location, drives too fast, or strays into an area that an employer designates off-limits.
Some employers say GPS has delivered immediate dividends.
At Automated Waste Disposal, Viento says that before he installed the system this past spring, drivers of his 22 front-loaders were clocking about 300 hours a week of overtime at 1.5 times pay. Once the company started keeping tabs of the time they spent hanging out in the yard before and after completing their routes and the time and location of stops they made along the way, that plummeted to just 70 hours — substantial savings for a company whose drivers make about $20 an hour.
The company has also installed the GPS receivers, roughly the size and shape of tuna cans, in its salesmen’s cars. Using his computer, Viento has set digital boundaries around a local bar he says some of his company’s salesmen have been known to frequent around 4 p.m., when they’re supposed to be calling on customers.
Some workers have grumbled openly about the new technology, but accept that it’s not their choice to make.
“It’s kind of like Big Brother is watching a little bit. But it’s where we’re heading in this society,” said Tom McNally, a driver for Automated Waste Disposal. “I get testy in the deli when I’m waiting in line for coffee, because it’s like, hey, they’re (managers) watching. I’ve got to go.”
Other workers see it is as more invasive.
In Boston, 200 snowplow operators staged a protest last winter after the Massachusetts Highway Department said it would require all such independent contractors to begin carrying cell phones with GPS, as a way to track their efficiency. The city’s school bus drivers also objected to a plan to install the receivers after a spate of complaints about late pickups.
The Chicago local of the Teamsters union complained to the National Labor Relations Board in 2001, after trucking firm Roadway Express Inc. installed GPS in rigs manned by unionized drivers.
The parent union says it is wary of employers who use GPS.
“These systems could be used to unfairly discipline drivers, for counting every minute that they might or might not be on or off duty and holding that against them,” said Galen Munroe, a Teamsters spokesman. “There is that concern that if, down the road, GPS is used widely in fleets that that could become a genuine problem.”
Companies that sell GPS services say employers have every right to track their workers while they’re on the clock. But the systems are designed so that privacy can otherwise be maintained.
“If you start a lunch break, we stop tracking,” said Ananth Rani, vice president of products and services for Xora, whose worker monitoring software runs off cell phones. “At the end of the day, we stop tracking because what you do after the shift ends is private and what you do before the start of the day is private.”
GPS can be a boon to workers, documenting claims for overtime pay that employers might previously have disputed, said Krish Panu, president and CEO of At Road, a service provider. Some employers, using the systems to track how many assignments a worker completes, use it as a means of awarding incentives rather than punishment, he said.
“This is not about tracking people. It’s about managing the business,” Panu said.
But worker and privacy advocates, while acknowledging the value of GPS for some business purposes, say employers are already stepping over the line.
“We’re talking about monitoring employees in every facet of their lives, and monitoring behavior that is more often than not, personal and not business related,” said Jeremy Gruber, legal director for the National Workrights Institute, an advocacy group.
He cites instances of employers who have reportedly required some workers to carry GPS-equipped cell phones at all times, even when off work.
Then again, drawing clear lines between some jobs and workers’ private life is becoming increasingly complex. More people now work from home or on the road, and more employers expect their people to remain on call at any hour.
Still, workers know perfectly well they’re supposed to focus on the job during their regular shift, employers say. And GPS gives companies a means to make sure they maintain that focus.
“If you come to work here, and I pay you and you’re driving one of my vehicles,” Viento says, “I should have the right to know what you’re doing.”