Fingerprint time clock angers city works union

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The workers who patch and clear Pittsburgh's roads, maintain parks and repair public buildings may soon have to start and end their work days by being electronically fingerprinted.

By the beginning of next year, the Department of Public Works hopes to have workers place their fingers on the sensors of Keri Systems Inc.'s BioPointe Fingerprint Readers.

The $70,000 system is meant to keep employees from falsifying the amount of time they work or clocking in for each other, said Public Works Director Guy Costa yesterday.

Union leaders representing the 500-odd workers that would be affected have already filed an unfair labor practices charge against the system.

"I consider this very, very intrusive, a personal violation, if you will," said Eric Momberger, staff representative for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees locals 2037 and 2719. "We're going to try to stop this."

Public works employees currently use paper sign-in sheets to record when they arrive and leave work, said Mr. Costa.

"Someone may come in and sign in for their buddy, and their buddy might come in 10 or 15 minutes later," he said. Or an employee might come in late, but write on the time sheet that he came in on time, he said.

In recent years, the city has lost two grievances because it could not prove that workers disciplined for skipping work were not on the job, he added.

The fingerprint reader the city has purchased through the Oakland office of Berwyn-based Sonitrol Corp. requires that workers type in an identification number at the start and end of their shift, then place any finger on a reader.

The computer record of the fingerprinting "will document that the employee was or wasn't there," he said. That information will eventually feed data directly to the payroll system, ensuring that workers only get paid for the time they were there.

"Fingerprinting, I think, is beyond what we need," said city Councilman Jeffrey Koch, who was an acting foreman under Mr. Costa prior to his election in March. "If people are leaving early, and that's your reason for the time clocks, then where's your supervision?"

Also missing, say union leaders, is any effort to inform employees. They found out about the plan in early June, after the system was already purchased, and promptly filed an unfair labor practices charge with the state Labor Relations Board.

The charge says the city must inform and bargain with the Pittsburgh Joint Collective Bargaining Committee, which represents some 400 blue collar workers, before changing work rules. That committee of unions has also filed a grievance against the plan, said its attorney, Howard Grossinger.

"If the labor board looks at this, or some other arbitrator [reviews it as part of the grievance procedure] and says that the city changed the terms and conditions of employment without bargaining with the union, they may be stuck with a $70,000 time clock system they can't use," he said.

The city and the unions met June 30, but there are still unanswered questions about the system, like how fingerprint data would be secured, he said.

Had the city consulted the union before buying the system, it might have gotten suggestions of less expensive means for tracking employee work hours, he said.

Mr. Momberger suggested that a swipe card system might achieve the same purpose.

Mr. Costa, though, said one worker could have another run his card across a reader, a scheme known as "buddy punching."

There are no plans to fingerprint top management.

Mr. Costa and others who work in the department's main office on Second Avenue have devices on their key chains that they run across sensors when they enter and leave buildings. The sensors record their time worked.

The $70,000 purchase didn't require council approval, Mr. Costa said, because it was just an add-on to an existing city security contract. The money came from an account dedicated to city building maintenance.

It will pay for itself by cutting expenses or increasing productivity, he said. "If they come to work late or leave early, they're going to see a reduction in their pay," he said.

Mr. Costa's initiative comes as fingerprinting -- long the province of police investigations and high-security locations -- becomes more common.

Some companies are putting fingerprint scanners into laptop computers, so thieves or data snatchers can't log on. The scanners are already built into bank teller machines in some countries. There is talk in the financial industry about eventually requiring credit card users to scan their prints prior to charging a purchase.

Mr. Grossinger said that in that brave new world, electronic records of fingerprints may be stolen and misused like Social Security numbers are now.

So why should workers share their prints?

"There's nothing particularly sensitive about our employees' jobs," he said.

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.


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