Corporate Harm: Tracking Employees and Productivity

How workplace surveillance, telematics and tracking employees has become a menace to health and safety.


| Winter 2015



Now the truck he drove was full of sensors. They reported when he opened the bulkhead door. When he backed up. When his foot was on the brake. When he was idling. When he buckled his safety belt.

Photo by Flickr/Tony Webster

Four years ago, I was out jogging with an old friend when she told me a puzzling story: Her longtime UPS driver had just reappeared after more than a monthlong absence. He’d been hospitalized for stress, she told me.

Stress? How stressful could that job be? So I asked to meet him. Over coffee, the deliveryman, whom I’ll call Bill (he asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the company), explained that United Parcel Service had been upgrading its systems for tracking employees. Now the truck he drove was full of sensors. They reported when he opened the bulkhead door. When he backed up. When his foot was on the brake. When he was idling. When he buckled his safety belt. A high-resolution stream of data, including all that information and his GPS coordinates, flowed back to the UPS offices. The system is called “telematics.”

With more than 15 years on the job, Bill already knew how to follow classic UPS protocols, with names that sounded like dogma from a productivity-worshipping cult: “The Five Seeing Habits,” “The Ten-Point Commentary,” “The 340 Methods.” Guidelines derived from time-and-motion studies told him the most efficient way to do everything: how to handle his ignition key, which shirt pocket to use for his pen (right-handed people should use the left pocket, and vice versa), how to pick a “walk path” from the truck, and how to occupy time while riding in an elevator.

But telematics ratcheted up that pressure. Now drivers were called to account for a litany of small sins. They were asked to justify bathroom breaks and any other deviations—“stealing time” in corporate-speak—that could chip away at their SPORH (pronounced “spoor”) count, or Stops Per On-Road Hour.

“I have no problem doing a heavy, hard job,” Bill told me. “But now, after you do the job, you have to look back every day and say, ‘Did I do this? Did I do that?’ They have a report that tells them everything that you did wrong. For instance, if you turned the truck on before you put on your seat belt, that’s wasting gas.”

For UPS, whose revenues topped $58 billion in 2014, tracking worker productivity goes straight to the bottom line. Time is money, and management knows exactly how much: “Just one minute per driver per day over the course of a year adds up to $14.5 million,” the company’s senior director of process management, Jack Levis, told NPR last year. He appeared on a boosterish episode of the Planet Money podcast titled “The Future of Work Looks Like a UPS Truck.” Levis and other UPS executives have a favorite quip: “We’ve moved from a trucking company that has technology to basically a technology company that just happens to have trucks.”