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Now that they’ve been using a widely disliked new biometric timekeeping system for two months, many union members at the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) have more objections than ever and are renewing their protests.

Officials and members of Local 375 of DC 37, the Civil Service Technical Guild, denounced the implementation of the Hand Punch 4000 system at City Hall last week and presented Mayor Bloomberg with a petition signed by more than 300 DDC employees calling the new units “totally unnecessary … personally offensive, invasive and degrading,” and demanding they be removed.

To clock in at work in the morning and clock out in the evening, the Hand Punch units take a reading of the unique shape of each employee’s hand. Use of “biometric” technology that automatically identifies people based on physical or behavioral characteristics is spreading in America and abroad, but many civil liberties advocates consider it dangerous and an improper use of government power.

“I’m just very troubled by the use of technology for the purposes of control and monitoring,” said Rory Lancman, the Democratic candidate for the 25th Assembly District in Queens, after the City Hall rally. Also present to back the union’s cause were Councilmembers Charles Barron and Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr., chairman of Council’s Civil Service and Labor Committee. Addabbo said he’s concerned about a lack of communication with workers and the cost of citywide implementation. He plans to hold an oversight hearing in his committee before the end of the year.

Bloomberg spokesman Matt Kelly said Thursday’s protest had no effect on the Mayor’s support of the Hand Punch system. “This is not any more onerous or intrusive of a timekeeping system” than the paper- and computer-based system used before, Kelly said. “It’s not invasive of privacy.”

Although resistance to the “hand geometry” system flared at DDC this summer, Hand Punch-type systems have been used at about a dozen city agencies for a decade without incident, Kelly said. It’s now being rolled out at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Department of Correction and other places. Office of Payroll Administration Executive Director Joel Bondy has said the Hand Punch system will be implemented across roughly 80 city units and agencies as a way to eliminate payroll inaccuracies and delays, and apply timekeeping rules uniformly.

“I think it would help the dialogue to separate the issue of whether to punch from how to punch. Once the decision to 'clock in' has been made, the question of which specific technology to use gets made based on a number of factors. Hand geometry has a lot of advantages and has widespread acceptance,” Bondy told City Limits. “But I think the main issue has to do with whether staff are required to punch in. These workers previously did not punch a clock, but they did sign in and out using a sign-in sheet, functionally equivalent.”

Local 375, which represents more than 600 workers at DDC, is also waging a legal battle to turn back the timeclock at the agency. Last week its lawyer, Rachel Minter, made a second filing at the city Office of Collective Bargaining, claiming the installation of Hand Punch “is a mandatory subject of bargaining because it is more intrusive than the prior system.” Local 375 considers the new timekeeping system a change in the terms and conditions of employment that should not have been made without union input before implementation. Minter filed an “improper practice petition” in August, to which the Office of Labor Relations responded last month, asserting the new system is not a mandatory subject of bargaining. Now that she’s filed again, Minter said she doesn’t know whether a hearing, conference, decision or otherwise will follow. But practical problems have cropped up since August that bolster the union’s case, Minter said.

“It does turn people into clock watchers, and not in the way the city would have intended,” she said. “All it’s doing is making people nuts and less productive. It really is making things worse for the city.”[10/09/06]

– Karen Loew

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