Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Smile. You're On Workplace Camera

Let’s say an employer has expensive equipment or products which it has good reason to protect. Concerned about break ins and vandals, it installs security cameras at various locations throughout the workplace. A routine check of the video recordings reveals employees stealing from the employer. Naturally, their supervisor is outraged and maybe yelling “I want them fired now.” The employees are not members of a union but also were never made aware that the cameras were installed. Can the employer take disciplinary action based on the video information.

The use of video equipment for surveillance in the workplace is increasingly common. The sophistication of equipment and the ease of operation make it simple to operate and easy to conceal. But what about employee rights?

The fact of the matter is that an employer has a right to install and use surveillance cameras in most areas of the workplace, to monitor property and employee conduct. The only restrictions that exist are individual state laws which may protect employees’ privacy. While some states have enacted legislation limiting surveillance in the workplace, Illinois employers are only prohibited from violating employees’ rights to privacy. Generally, this translates into a prohibition on surveillance of employees in rest rooms and where they may change. It does not prohibit cameras in the lunchroom or any common area where work is performed.

Let’s just say, though, that the employees under surveillance are also members of a union and no mention of cameras exists in the collective bargaining agreement. Even then, the employer still has the right to install cameras and monitor its property. The only question for an employer is whether, as in our first example, the employer can discipline employees when the camera inadvertently records their misconduct. In a  unionized workforce, the employer will likely have to negotiate the impact of cameras in the workplace with the union before information from that source can be used to discipline employees.

Employers are free to utilize surveillance cameras in areas where employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy (so not in restrooms or locker rooms). In non-union workplaces, the employer can monitor and take action against employees based on such information. Where employees are unionized, though, the employer can monitor its property, but will likely have to negotiate the use of the surveillance information against employees.