New York City Workers Resist Creeping Techno-Fascism
As more agencies implement a controversial biometric system for city employees, new questions emerge about the costs, contractors and their ties to city government. – Ali Winston
City Limits WEEKLY #629
March 3, 2008
Park workers at a rally in front of their agency’s headquarters in the Central Park Armory. Photos by Alan Saly
City unions are up in arms once more against the Bloomberg administration’s widening implementation of hand-scanning technology, part of a long-running computerized payroll initiative known as CityTime.
Aside from unions’ assertions that the “hand geometry” scanners are an invasion of their privacy, the CityTime program is under the microscope for its ballooning $400 million price tag, the track record of the contractors undertaking the project and ties between one contractor and the chief of the Office of Payroll Administration (OPA), the agency responsible for CityTime.
A year after Local 375 (the branch of municipal union DC 37 that represents engineers, architects and other technical workers) successfully petitioned the Office of Labor Relations to give each city agency the right to decide whether to use the Ingersoll Rand Hand Punch 4000 units—which clock workers in by reading the specific geometry of their hand—an increasing number of departments have implemented it as part of CityTime.
At least a dozen city agencies from the Law Department to OPA itself, comprising some 13,000 workers, are now using biometric time clocks, and another five agencies will do so by summer 2008. The program will eventually include 80 agencies and 160,000 city employees. Last fall, the Parks Department started requiring workers in various facilities earning under $68,000 to clock in and out with palm scanners. Among the Parks Department’s 7,000 employees, more than 5,000 will be required to use biometric readers.
During a boisterous Feb. 21 rally in front of their agency’s headquarters in the Central Park Armory, about 150 Parks workers bundled up against the cold and stated their case against biometric screening, chanting slogans such as “Olmstead and Vaux didn’t punch time clocks” (a reference to the city’s legendary park designers) while waving placards. LaShawn, an assistant landscape architect for Parks (who didn’t want her name used for fear of discipline), uses the hand scanners to clock in and out every day, to her displeasure. Along with her co-workers, LaShawn finds the scanners “demeaning” and views them as a sign of distrust. “That shows how they consider me as a worker. If they trusted me, they’d just ask for a code,” she said.
Linda Lawton, a 59-year-old former artist who became a registered landscape architect because she wanted a profession that’s respected, deplored the wage-based criteria that determine which workers must scan. Hand scanning, Lawton says, “undermines morale and creates a class division because scanning has to do with the salary level.” She also has strong reservations about submitting further personal information to the Parks Department, since employees are fingerprinted and photographed when they are hired.
“Where do we end, when we start putting chips into people’s bodies?” City Councilmember Joe Addabbo of Queens told City Limits. Addabbo chairs the Civil Service and Labor Committee, whose January 2007 hearing on CityTime’s hand scanners is credited by unions and legislators for prompting the city to let agency chiefs decide whether or not to implement the technology. According to OPA, CityTime will increase efficiency and reduce costs by cutting down on “buddy punching” (instances where one worker signs an absent colleague in and out) and forged timecards. Addabbo does not share OPA’s concerns about buddy punching: “For every one of those instances, there are thousands of city workers who do an honest day’s work.”
OPA Executive Director Joel Bondy contends that in designing CityTime his agency ensured privacy protection by selecting “hand geometry” technology over other, more invasive biometric methods that were under consideration. Fingerprint scanning, which was a popular option during CityTime’s planning stages, was rejected because of “the potential for the misuse of electronically captured and stored information,” said Bondy. The controversial Hand Punch machines were adopted, he said, “to minimize any privacy concerns that our employees might have.”
The concerns, however, aren’t confined to privacy issues. CityTime critics like State Assemblyman Alan Maisel (D-59th District, Brooklyn) are worried about the cost of the entire program, which also includes developing a computer network for data transfers. “I have a hard time understanding it,” Maisel says. “There is so much money available for the Mayor’s gadgets.” The CityTime budget from 1999 to date outstrips this year’s proposed budget cuts of $324 million and $95 million for the Department of Education and the NYPD, respectively.
Besides the size of the CityTime budget, there are questions about the companies who’ve been contracted under it. Science Applications International Corporation, a San Diego-based consulting firm founded in 1969, is the main contractor for CityTime, under a deal currently worth $348 million (up from the original contract value of $68 million). The company is responsible for research and development for the biometric readers, as well as implementation of the scanners and accompanying network. SAIC is a major government contractor, ranking among the top 10 federal vendors for at least the past four years and raking in $4.4 billion in contractors with the U.S. government in 2007 alone.
But SAIC has also had high-profile problems over the years. In the early 1990s, the company and six of its employees pleaded guilty to making false statements in their handling of work at EPA Superfund sites. In 2004, the Pentagon’s inspector general faulted SAIC’s performance on a contract to rebuild the Iraqi media. The following year, the FBI blamed SAIC for botching the development of the bureau’s new “Trilogy” information management system (although the Justice Department inspector general said the FBI deserved much of the blame). And the company was still wrangling into 2007 with the Greek government over whether SAIC deserved full payment for a security system it developed for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
OPA chief Bondy maintains that OPA is keeping a sharp eye on SAIC’s performance. “There is a tremendous amount of focus, attention, and energy being put on managing SAIC’s delivery of services,” Bondy said. Mayor Bloomberg’s office also expressed its confidence in SAIC. “SAIC is a large company that does a lot of business worldwide, and OPA vetted them appropriately at the time of their selection and found them responsible,” said City Hall spokesperson Matt Kelly.
A smaller “quality assurance” contract with Spherion, a Florida consulting firm, has also raised red flags. Spherion was awarded its first contract for CityTime in March 2001, for $4 million. The company’s current deal is worth $51 million. According to his testimony during a July 2007 court hearing on CityTime, OPA chief Bondy launched his own consultancy and worked as a subcontractor for Spherion on CityTime from 2002 to 2004 immediately prior to being hired by the city. Bondy’s biography on the OPA website does not mention this work.
Bondy and City Hall maintain that his past employment was brought to the attention of the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB), and settled appropriately. “The independent, non-Mayoral City agency charged with interpreting and enforcing the Conflicts of Interest Law, approved Joel Bondy to be Executive Director of the Office of Payroll Administration,” said mayoral spokesperson Kelly. For his part, Bondy says the conflicts board issued a “confidential letter of opinion” that cleared him to work at OPA. COIB says their regulations prohibiting them from disclosing whether a confidential letter of opinion even exists, and therefore could neither confirm nor refute Bondy’s claim. Confidential letters are issued when COIB denies a waiver from city law for a particular activity by a city employee, determines that a particular activity doesn’t run afoul of the law or gets a request for confidential advice. Back in 1991, when Bondy was deputy executive director of the city’s Financial Information Services Agency, the COIB publicly accepted Bondy’s promise to recuse himself from any role in dealings between FISA and an outside firm in which Bondy had an ownership interest.
Both SAIC and Spherion have held multiple contracts with several city agencies over the years. Bondy maintains that the SAIC and Spherion CityTime contracts were put out to competitive bid, but Addabbo plans to hold another oversight hearing later this spring to investigate the CityTime program as a whole, including hand scanner implementation, contracts, finances, and Bondy’s ties to Spherion. “We thought we made our case a year ago – then we find out that they’re not only being used again, but they’re being expanded,” Addabbo said.
CityTime’s “hand geometry” machines are part of a broader trend of introducing monitoring devices into workplaces around the city. Last September, taxi cab drivers went on strike for two days to protest the installation of Global Positioning Systems in their vehicles. The Police Department recently placed RFID chips into departmental identification cards carried by officers. In the private sector, workers at companies like Bloomberg LLP use fingerprint scanners to log on and off their computers. At Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn, nurses have Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) devices clipped to their nametags.
“This is about control,” said Local 375 President Claude Fort. “Management wants to control every aspect of the day.” Fort added that requiring palm scanning was a waste of money, counterproductive and a “slap in the face” to workers. Local 375 does not object to the use of electronic timesheets as part of CityTime, but rather the use of biometric technology, which it maintains was implemented unilaterally by the city without consulting unions. The union claims biometric scanners have caused lost wages, reduced downtime and triggered additional cost because of necessary debugging software.
The legality of biometric screening has yet to undergo a true test, as recent complaints by the union have been tossed out on procedural grounds by the Office of Collective Bargaining, and the state Supreme Court in August rejected Local 375’s request for an injunction to halt the palm-screening. “There is still no case law on the issue of technological tracking in the workplace in New York State,” says Local 375 lawyer Rachel Minter. That could change: The union is appealing the court decision.
– Ali Winston