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Six months of protest against a high-tech timekeeping system being installed at public agencies seemed to yield results last week when the head of the city department where objections were strongest told his staff that use of controversial “hand geometry” devices will become voluntary.

Exactly what tools and procedures the city's 345,000 employees will use to keep their timesheets over the next few months is unclear, since the Office of Labor Relations (OLR) announced Feb. 2 that use of the new Hand Punch 4000 units – which measure individual hand shapes as a way of clocking time on the job – will be at the discretion of each city agency's chief.

More than 100 staff members at the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) were meeting Friday about the next steps they would take to fight the units, which many staff members had quickly labeled invasive and demeaning when they were installed in August, when an e-mail from DDC Commissioner David Burney came over on an employee's BlackBerry.

Because of OLR's policy change, Burney wrote, “in the next few weeks, a software change to the City Time program will … allow employees to record their attendance via computer when they log in and out each day. Those preferring the City Time palm scanners may continue to do so.”

It was a dramatic moment for the architects and engineers at DDC who have felt degraded by the new system. “While we were working on the petition, the news came in,” said Claude Fort, president of Local 375 of DC 37, which spearheaded the fight. “You should see the expression of relief and pride that we won something together. I read [the message] to the group, and it was such an explosion of joy and relief and pride.”

The city maintains the change has nothing to do with Local 375's efforts, however. Those efforts include two legal challenges at the Office of Collective Bargaining and support of a City Council hearing into the so-called “palm scanners” held last month by Civil Service Committee Chairman Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach).

“This is not a change of citywide policy, it's something that's been in the idea of City Time since its inception,” said Mayoral spokesperson Matthew Kelly, referring to the new timekeeping system being rolled out, of which the hand readers are one part. “We're not retreating from biometrics.”

Biometrics are means of identifying people automatically based on physical or behavioral characteristics, whether by hand shape, as in this case, or such uses as paying at the supermarket with a fingerprint connected to your bank account. Local 375 considers this an invasion of privacy, and is also concerned about other biometrics, such as using voice recognition to track staffers out in the field, and other kinds of monitoring, such as global positioning systems (GPS) built into city employees' cars or cell phones.

DDC Assistant Commissioner Matthew Monahan echoed Kelly's explanation of the change, although he acknowledged that detractors' complaints had some effect.

“It's more what I'd call an update or advance in technology than a change in policy,” Monahan said. “It's a combination of the advance [of technology] and those who weren't comfortable with all of the aspects of the palm reader's accuracy.” A new computer “log-on, sign-in” system will be available sometime in the spring, he said.

That's not enough for Addabbo, who was impressed with the testimony he heard at the Jan. 22 hearing. (Labor and payroll officials did not testify, apparently because of the legal proceedings underway at the Office of Collective Bargaining. They also would not comment for this story.)

This week Addabbo will call for a moratorium on all use and installation of the hand readers. Making Hand Punch voluntary is “a step in the right direction,” he said. But “I think the administration has alternatives, they really do. I think there are more credible, more flexible, more efficient ways of keeping time.”

Of the 16 agencies already using or implementing the City Time system, eight are using biometric devices for timekeeping, according to Kelly. The Department for the Aging and the Department for Homeless Services are making the switch to City Time but haven't decided whether to use Hand Punch, their spokespeople said.

Local 375's lawyer, Rachel Minter, said she doesn't quite buy the city's explanation for the change. “It seems unlikely that they would invest all the time and money in the scanners, and then discontinue their use as a natural evolution of technology,” Minter said. And the union's legal proceedings are ongoing, she said.

“I think it's likely we're going to revisit this issue with GPS. I'd be very surprised if they didn't. I don't think this is the end of it,” she said.

– Karen Loew