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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Business

No place to hide

Adam Geller Associated Press

DANBURY, Conn. — Ciro Viento commands a platoon of 110 garbage trucks, so when a caller complained after seeing one of the blue and white trash tanks speeding down Route 22, Viento didn’t know which driver to blame. Until he checked his computer.

With a few taps on the keyboard, Viento zeroed in on the driver of one particular front-loader — which, the screen showed, had been on that very road at 7:22 a.m., doing 51 miles per hour in a zone restricted to 35. Gotcha.

More employers are adopting technology like the system used by Viento’s company. As they do, many workers who have long enjoyed the freedom of the road are rankling over the boss’ newfound power to watch their every move — via satellite.

The technology, global positioning systems, is hardly new. But using GPS to track workers and vehicles is catching on with a growing number of business and government employers, bent on improving productivity and customer service, and keeping tabs on labor costs.

“If you’re not out there baby-sitting them, you don’t know how long it takes to do the route. The guy could be driving around the world, he could be at his girlfriend’s house,” said Viento of Automated Waste Disposal Inc., a commercial and household trash hauler doing business in western Connecticut and neighboring New York counties. “Now there’s literally no place for them to hide.”

Some long-haul trucking companies have used GPS to manage their fleets for several years. But the range of employers adopting GPS — usually fitted in vehicles or in cell phones and other devices workers carry on the job — is broadening, particularly among companies dispatching large numbers of service technicians, in the building trades and others whose workers span wide territory.

UPS Inc., for example, will distribute new hand-held computers to its 100,000 U.S. delivery truck drivers early this year, each equipped with a GPS receiver. The company says the feature will not be used to monitor workers, but to alert them when they’re at the wrong address or help them identify an unfamiliar location.

But for many of the employers adopting the technology, the primary benefit is keeping closer track of workers who aren’t always doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

This past summer, for example, managers at Metropolitan Lumber & Hardware in New York worried when a new driver dispatched to a delivery just six blocks away still hadn’t arrived after 3 1/2 hours. But using GPS, dispatchers soon tracked him down, “goofing off” on the other side of Manhattan, said Larry Charity, the company’s information technology manager.

“There’s less of that now that they know they’re being tracked,” he said.

GPS, developed for the military in the 1970s, keys off a constellation of satellites transmitting signals from space.

Companies are harnessing GPS to tell them how long their employees and vehicles have been at a specific location, what direction they’re heading in and how fast they’re moving.

Most of the systems can be set to alert a company if their employee spends too much time at a given location, drives too fast, or strays into an area that an employer designates off-limits.

Some employers say GPS has delivered immediate dividends.

At Automated Waste Disposal, Viento says that before he installed the system this past spring, drivers of his 22 front-loaders were clocking about 300 hours a week of overtime at 1.5 times pay. Once the company started keeping tabs of the time they spent hanging out in the yard before and after completing their routes and the time and location of stops they made along the way, that plummeted to just 70 hours — substantial savings for a company whose drivers make about $20 an hour.

Other workers see it is as more invasive.

In Boston, 200 snowplow operators staged a protest last winter after the Massachusetts Highway Department said it would require all such independent contractors to begin carrying cellphones with GPS, as a way to track their efficiency.

The Chicago local of the Teamsters union complained to the National Labor Relations Board in 2001, after trucking firm Roadway Express Inc. installed GPS in rigs manned by unionized drivers.

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