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Staten Island resident Rajiv Gowda, 45, is a program administrator at the Department of Design and Construction who studied engineering at two universities. He’s done engineering or project management at DDC for all 10 years the city’s design and build agency has existed, coming from the Department of Environmental Protection where he served for several years as a design engineer.

Gowda considers himself a professional, and resents that as of last week he is required to “clock in” to work every morning and “clock out” every evening by inserting one hand into a wall-mounted electronic unit that registers the time and whether the shape proffered is that of his hand and no one else’s.

“For me it’s demoralizing, degrading,” Gowda said Wednesday, the first time he ever began the work day by putting his right hand into a Hand Punch 4000 console on a wall near his cubicle. “They trust us with multimillion dollar projects, but they don’t want to trust us with the time issue.”

His union, Local 375 of DC 37, the Civil Service Technical Guild, represents more than 600 DDC employees, and close to one third of them also have to clock in and out this way. Typical city practice has been that those who earn under the citywide salary cap of $61,985 manually fill out a time sheet once a day, while those who earn more fill one out once a week. Under the new system, both groups record their time via a computer system called CityTime, and those under the cap use Hand Punch as well.

“We find it incredibly offensive. Nowhere do our people punch time clocks, and we’re not about to start that now,” said Local 375 First Vice President Jon Forster. “DDC is a high-quality design agency, it’s not a factory.”

To protest this change of workplace practice, Local 375 today filed an “improper practice petition” with the city Office of Collective Bargaining. That’s because it considers this use of biometric technology a change in the terms and conditions of employment that can’t be made unilaterally, according to the union’s lawyer, Rachel Minter. Use of biometrics — the automated identification of a person based on physical or behavioral characteristics — is on the rise, from supermarkets where people pay with a fingerprint that connects to their bank account, to airports where travelers’ eyes are scanned by machines rather than having their passports examined by people.

Questions about technological monitoring in the workplace form a new and developing area of the law, Minter said. Ideally, the union’s petition would force the city to acknowledge it shouldn’t have implemented the Hand Punch system without negotiating over it first. A lesser victory would be winning “effects bargaining” over the terms of the system’s use: how the system is regulated, who uses it, who has access to its database, and the like. Minter said this case is “breaking new ground” and could set a precedent for union law, but would probably have little effect in general, as non-unionized employees have few privacy rights.

At DDC’s headquarters building in Long Island City last week, employees voiced a variety of concerns about the new system. Gowda and several colleagues learned about the new timekeeping protocol shortly before its implementation. They speculated that the city’s reasons for initiating it may be reducing paperwork, increasing building security, tracking employees’ movements, generating profits for the companies involved, obsessing needlessly about punctuality — and just scaring people. Some also don’t like putting their hand on a surface that’s been touched by many before, with the attendant risk of catching colds or worse.

DDC employees are being treated “like children, like inmates,” said James, a project manager who didn’t want to give his last name. “Why do you have to use a body part to sign in?” An engineer, George, said, “They need to codify explicitly the objective behind this system.”

Office of Payroll Administration (OPA) Executive Director Joel Bondy says the CityTime and Hand Punch systems are being implemented — now at places including DDC, OPA and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, but eventually across roughly 80 city units and agencies — simply to eliminate payroll inaccuracies and delays, and to apply timekeeping rules uniformly. With 345,000 employees to be paid, all of whom have to submit some kind of time record, and more than 230 collective bargaining units, there are close to 1,300 pay codes in use, and thousands of employees doing all that paperwork.

“It’s just a highly complex and specialized bit of administrative work that goes into paying the city’s workforce,” Bondy said. “The timekeeping system is supposed to automate all that.”

Implementation of CityTime and Hand Punch has been in the works since before Bondy and Mayor Bloomberg assumed their jobs; the change was begun by former OPA head Richard Valcich. All the present rules about employees’ schedules, timekeeping, pay docking for lateness, and related issues are the same. “We may be changing the technology, but we’re not changing the practices,” he said.

Because OPA wanted to ensure that employees register their own time and not have co-workers cover for them, other biometric devices such as voice recognition and retina scanning were considered. “Hand geometry was the most proven and the least troubling from a privacy concern perspective,” Bondy said.

The city maintains that using the Hand Punch 4000, manufactured by Ingersoll Rand, does not enable employees to be tracked in any way. Many privacy advocates still consider it a serious problem. Michael Ostrolenk, founder and national director of the multi-partisan Liberty Coalition in Washington, says the use of such a machine “is a dangerous precedent. It’s one of many.”

Individual uses of biometric and related technologies may seem benign, but added together, “they are going to get Americans used to electronic tagging of one kind or another,” Ostrolenk said. He has two problems with that: one, that “it’s not the proper role of governments to track citizens that closely,” and two, that the databases created raise the question, “What decisions will be taken on your behalf based on what’s known about you?”

DC 37 would like to know more about CityTime, including how data will be gathered, used and stored, and has filed a Freedom of Information Law request with OPA. Local 375 has support from the several other unions represented at DDC, and is holding a rally outside the department tomorrow to announce the improper practice petition’s filing.

– Karen Loew