Finger-scan system OK: Arbitrator

Union claimed biometric time clock violated employee privacy

Workers at the Good Humor-Breyers ice cream manufacturing company in Simcoe, Ont., start the day with the swipe of a finger.

To record their start times, the company uses a finger scan, specifically, the Kronos 4500 Touch ID Terminal Biometric Time Clock. Employees “enrol” two fingers (thereby providing a back-up finger in case the original finger is incapacitated later) and the machine stores what its brochure calls a “mathematical representation” of the fingerprints.

The company providing the system claims the images of the fingerprint are not saved, so the system could not use any stored information to recreate the fingerprint, ensuring complete privacy.

Despite these reassurances, the union feared personal information could be collected improperly. It launched a grievance claiming the privacy rights of employees were jeopardized. The onus was on the union to prove the Kronos system was invasive. However, the union provided no evidence to convince the arbitrator and in the process managed to annoy him as well.

Tim Dedrick, the union steward who described how workers used the system, did not say he felt his privacy was being violated. In fact, when the company installed the system on a trial basis in one department several years previously, the union did not protest. Nor did it raise the issue during bargaining two years later.

Management’s point of view, substantiated with payroll records, was the new system was more economic and more efficient than the old swipe card method.

The new system also resulted in fewer missed punches, reduced costs for replacing lost time cards, less supervisory time verifying payroll entries and less opportunity for time theft to occur (although buddy punching and other time theft had not been a problem at the plant).

By contrast, the union failed to provide evidence confidential data had been, or was in danger of being, compromised. Furthermore, it did not provide testimony from expert witnesses. The union did not subpoena the suppliers of Kronos nor provide evidence about its use in other workplaces where it might have been seen as “faulty or intrusive to a presumed right to privacy.”

All the arbitrator had before him was a three-page product data sheet from Kronos. While the sales literature was written in plain, reassuring — and persuasive — language, the specifications sheet was described by the arbitrator as being “almost 100-per-cent unintelligible geekspeak gobbledegook jargon.”

He couldn’t make heads nor tails of it and said so. Irritating the adjudicator in this way didn’t help the union’s cause. The arbitrator said the decision-maker needs sufficient evidence to make an informed decision on the facts rather than the “fears and suspicions of the (union).”

Suggesting, as the union did, that another less technologically advanced system should have been chosen was “positively Luddite,” especially in view of the fact the union had no evidence employees’ privacy rights were threatened.

The final straw was the union’s reliance on a previous arbitration, IKO Industries Ltd. and U.S.W.A., as having similar facts and therefore a ruling worth considering. IKO Industries installed the Kronos system in its plant in Hawkesbury, Ont.

However, the union at IKO subpoenaed a witness from Kronos whose testimony helped convince the arbitrator to rule as she did.

Also, there was evidence provided that another method would have worked just as well. Finally, the IKO case concerned additional security issues as well as payroll accuracy, but only the latter goal was mentioned in Good Humor-Breyers.

The arbitrator in IKO ruled privacy rights had been infringed upon, but was hesitant to issue a blanket condemnation of all workplace biometric systems.

The arbitrator in Good Humor-Breyers felt his colleague had combined the concepts of privacy interests and privacy rights and had come to a “hesitant conclusion.”

Relying on what happens in other situations instead of providing sound evidence for the circumstances at hand will not likely lead to the desired results. Annoying the arbitrator doesn’t help either. Providing a sound set of understandable facts goes a long way and will more likely leave the arbitrator in good humour.

For more information see:

• Good Humor-Breyers (Simcoe) and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 175 (Aug. 7, 2007), David Murray – Sole Arbitrator (Ont. Arb. Bd.).

• IKO Industries Ltd. and U.S.W.A., 2002 CarswellOnt 4624 (Ont. Arb. Bd.).

Lorna Harris is the assistant editor of Canadian HR Reporter’s sister publication CLV Reports, a weekly newsletter that reports on collective bargaining and other issues in labour relations. She can be reached at (416) 298-5141 ext. 2617 or [email protected].

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