San Jose lawmaker seeks to protect Silicon Valley workers from employer spying

Workers today are subject to more surveillance and tracking at work – often without their knowledge – than ever before, advocates say.

Various productivity apps, often on workers’ smartphones or other devices, track and predict every move of delivery drivers and warehouse workers, collecting data on their location, speed and accuracy in completing orders, according to a UC Berkeley Labor Center study.

Workers prepare outbound shipments at an Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy.
REUTERS/Noah Berger

Meanwhile, some employers install software on remote workers’ computers to log their keystrokes, monitor their internet activity, or take screenshots at any time, even turning on webcams to monitor them. If workers refuse to be tracked, they risk their jobs, advocates say.

Assemblyman Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose, proposed a bill Monday which he said would guarantee workers some protection from surveillance and retaliation by employers outside working hours.

The Workplace Technology Accountability Act, or AB 1651, would create a set of privacy standards for employers’ workplace monitoring tools. The bill was examined on Wednesday in the Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee.

This would require employers to give notice to workers and explain how, when and why surveillance technology is used at work. This would prohibit employers from monitoring workers off duty or on their personal devices, and it would allow workers to view and correct data about them.

It would also ban the use of facial recognition technology and prevent employers from using algorithms to decide when and if an employee should be disciplined or fired.

Kalra said low-income workers of color often bear the brunt of workplace surveillance. Nationally, four in 10 frontline workers are people of color, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC.

“Here in California with the black and Latino workforce…they are the ones being asked to shoulder the burden of keeping our economy moving,” Kalra said.

“And yet, at the same time, they are increasingly being asked to be monitored and controlled in many ways (by) technologies designed to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of them, without giving them the ability to to have a say in their work environment.

At the national level, exemptions from the Electronic Communications Privacy Act 1986 gave employers the right to eavesdrop on workers’ written and verbal communications.

In recent years, the market for workplace monitoring technologies has exploded, especially during the pandemic.

Coworker.org, a non-profit advocacy organization for tech workers, published a report last year on the rise of workplace surveillance technology. He found that nearly a third of the more than 550 new workplace technology products and companies he listed were created in the past two years.

Likewise, a 2021 UC Berkeley Work Center report showed that workers in various industries – including retail, hospitality, construction and health care – were under increased surveillance with little government scrutiny.

“It really is a bit of the Wild West out there, and employers are pretty free to do whatever they want with predictable negative effects on workers,” said Mitch Steiger, a legislative attorney for the California Labor Federation. .

He said surveillance has become routine in the workplace, and unfair use of algorithms and productivity tracking are increasingly tied to disciplinary action, often resulting in physical injury to workers.

Last month, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries fined Amazon $60,000, noting that there had been a “direct connectionbetween worker joint and muscle disorders and the company’s use of employee surveillance and discipline systems.

The job included hours of repetitive lifting and twisting at a distribution center in Kent, Washington. The department said Amazon’s productivity tracking technology forced workers to push themselves to meet quotas with little time to recover without penalty.

An Amazon spokesperson said the company disagrees with the findings and plans to appeal the citation.

Kalra and other advocates say his bill is not anti-tech. Rather, it is an attempt to restore workers’ right to privacy – on and off the job.

Steve Smith, director of communications at the California Labor Federation, said that currently, “workers have absolutely no ability to fight back, even to raise concerns about the invasion of privacy this creates. Workers low-wage workers are at the forefront here when it comes to those we are trying to protect with this bill.

The number of workers monitored in California remains unknown, as employers are not required to report this information.

“The fact that we are not able to identify the frequency of these technologies or their impact on workers is in fact a very telling symptom of the problem,” said Annette Bernhardt, director of the Technology and Work program at Labour. ‘UC Berkeley. Center.

“These systems are literally a black box for workers and decision-makers, as well as researchers.”

AB 1651 would require employers and suppliers to be transparent about these systems by requiring them to perform “impact assessments” on any algorithmic or worker tracking systems before using them and submit these reports to the Development Agency labor and manpower for review.

Additionally, the state labor commissioner would create an advisory committee by next March to recommend the best — and least harmful — uses of data-driven technology in the workplace.

Workers could file complaints with the agency and bring civil action against employers who violate the bill’s standards.

Kalra’s bill is backed by unions, but he says he expects some pushback from conservatives in the legislature, corporate lobby groups and sellers of productivity products and monitoring in the workplace.

The California Chamber of Commerce has been in contact with the California Federation of Labor about the bill, but has yet to see the final proposal, said Ronak Daylami, the group’s privacy policy advocate. businesses.

“However, as the pandemic has adapted the way we work, new technologies have developed to help employees and employers operate more flexibly and efficiently,” she wrote in an email. “We want to make sure we don’t stifle this innovation as our economy continues to recover.”

If the bill is successful, it would be one of the sweeping worker surveillance laws in the country, supporters said.

Next month, New York will join Connecticut and Delaware in simply requiring employers to disclose electronic monitoring to their workers. New York law will apply to workers hired on or after May 7. None of the laws enacted in these states give workers the right to review and correct data created about them.

Kalra’s bill is part of a number of efforts across the state to strengthen worker protections and limit the use of facial recognition technology, which studies have found disproportionately discriminates against workers. women and people of color.

“There is no doubt in my mind that these technologies are rapidly becoming the backbone of how employers organize work and production,” Bernhardt said. “So we have to ask ourselves, will these technologies be used to benefit workers and help them thrive in their work or will they be used to intensify workloads and rob workers of their autonomy and dignity?”

Last year, Newsom signed AB 701 in the law. The measure, which was backed by Kalra, now requires warehouse employers to disclose productivity quotas and work speed data to workers, and prohibits any quota that penalizes workers for taking breaks or using the restroom.