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Use and Misuse of Workstations at Home Dennis Chamot ar~]ohr~ L. Zalusky Computer technology is central to work reorganization plans now being instituted throughout our economy, and in many other countries as well. Whether the focus is on robots and automatic materials transfer in factories, desktop computers and word proc- essors in offices, laser scanners and automatic warehouses in re- tailing, or customer-operated equipment in banks, the very na- ture of work is being redefined. From the beginning of the first industrial revolution, manufac- turing has been characterized by continuous technological change. Machinery can always be made more efficient, and pro- duction processes can be improved. The same has not been true of office work. There was a very long gap, for example, between the adoption of typewriters and telephones as standard office equip- ment and the invention of the photocopier. For many decades of- fice work changed little and the tools available to office workers whether clerical, professional, or managerial changed hardly at all. An office worker of the 1950s or 1960s would not have been all that uncomfortable in an office of the 1920s. Today, office equipment and office work are undergoing rapid Dennis Chamot is associate director, Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO. John L. Zalusky is an economist, Department of Economic Research, AFL-CIO. 76
USE AND MISUSE OF WORKSTATIONS AT HOME 77 change. Many of these developments have not yet been fully di- gested, in a labor relations sense, but it is clear that office work is becoming more and more electronic. And an inherent characteris- tic of electronic work is that it becomes portable. The requirement for office workers to have physical access to files and other support devices is disappearing. Some already use available technology to do part of their work away from their of- fices; some do essentially all of their work at home, connected to a central facility through telephone lines. So far, however, the num- ber of people and firms so engaged is extremely small. it is also undoubtedly true that there is a strong element of predisposition and self-choice among today's electronic homeworkers. For these reasons, generalizations based upon this very limited experience should be approached with great caution. There is no justification for simple extrapolation to a future in which large numbers of people work at home because the employer insists upon that arrangement. So, while the results of recent research may be of some interest, it may be more helpful at this point to examine historical prece- dents and current labor-management and economic consider- ations. Assuming there is a trend developing within the business community to think about electronic homework arrangements, we should search for problems that might arise now so that plans can be devised to avoid them. Many of the potential benefits electronic homework offers to employing organizations, under current legal and economic condi- tions, are fairly obvious. They include reduced overhead costs re- sulting from a need for less office space; reduced capital costs, especially if homeworkers furnish their own terminals; the possi- bility for greater managerial control; and the expectation that in- dividual productivity might increase. Clearly, businesses would have no interest in this concept unless they expected some real economic advantages. Computer technology also offers significant benefits to employ- ees, but the benefits may well be enjoyed by people other than those who suffer the problems. To properly assess these effects, it is necessary to divide the potential work force into two categories. The first category includes entrepreneurs, executives, adminis- trators and other managers, and some professional employees. Except for the small group of true entrepreneurs (many them- seIves involved in developing computer software), everyone in
78 ISSUES AND PROBLEMS this group works in a traditional office and does only part of his or her work at home. These people choose to do some work at home primarily for their own convenience. They are salaried and receive the same benefits customarily enjoyed by their coworkers. They would expect to receive normal salary advances and to be consid- ered for promotions at appropriate times. The second category is potentially much larger and includes clerical employees, other support personnel, and some profes- sional employees. If electronic homework becomes widespread, this group will be characterized by the fact that they are required! to work at home for the convenience of the employer. Indeed, once this form of work becomes entrenched in corporate planning, of- fice space will be designed to accommodate only those workers whom management desires to have on the premises. All other work will be done elsewhere. The history of past experiences with industrial homework in this country should make us very sensitive to the range of abuse within this second category. Since the social and economic condi- tions that led to previous abuses persist today, there is no reason to assume that computer homework will be immune. Primarily out of the desire that the repugnant practices of the past not be repeated, combined with a belief that protective standards would be impossible to enforce, the Fifteenth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO, held in October 1983, passed a resolution titled "Computer Homework" (see Appendix C). It concludes: RESOLVED: That the AFL-CIO calls for an early ban on computer home- work by the Department of Labor as a measure of protection for those work- ers entering the market for the fastest-growing occupation in the United States. A ban on industrial homework done through computer termi- nals may be viewed by some as "arbitrarily depriving the home workers of the use of his property and personal liberty." In fact, this is the language of a New York State appeals court judge in 1885 when he set aside the first law limiting homework. That same argument has been repeated in every forum considering the abuses of homework, but it has not been persuasive. Many states any the federal government have placed limits on homework. The question is not whether there is evidence that computer home- work is abusive (how many exploiters cooperate with academic researchers?), but whether we can guarantee that it will not follow
USE AND MISUSE OF WORKSTATIONS AT HOME 79 the pattern set by other forms of homework and lead to the abuse and exploitation of women, children, minorities, immigrants, and even men. It is better to learn from the past rather than await the appearance of new horror stories as the electronic homework sys- tem begins to exploit the weak. Agitation against industrial homework began a half century be- fore the founding of the American Federation of Labor, while stave labor was still widespread. It is hard to believe that this economy found the two systems economically competitive, yet it did and the conditions were appalling. In 1829, for example, Mat- thew Carey included in his "Free Trade Advocate" the plight of 20,000 homeworkers in the New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore needle trades. Among the earliest examples of industrial homeworkers were glove makers. They began using hides to make gloves for their own use. Jobbers found wider markets for the work and factories followed. This development left the tedious work to be performed in the home and shifted control away from the glove maker, who became dependent upon the industrial supplier for work. A varia- tion of this process involved Parisian craftsmen who founded the artificial flower industry in New York shops in the late 1820s. Increased demand and competition resulted in a cheaper product being produced in homes. Movement of the handiwork out of the craft shops gave the shopowners, as contractors, control over the labor and product markets. The same experience occurred some- what later in the jewelry, doll, and similar industries. At the turn of the century social reformers like Jane Addams and Lewis W. Hine called attention to child labor practices and the miserable conditions found in industrial workshops and sweatshops. Home workshops were considered particularly insid- ions because of the difficulty in devising and enforcing suitable legislative controls. Fundamental laws governing basic working conditions were being undermined. Individual homes became work centers for women, their children, their neighbors, the neigh- bor's children, and even unemployed husbands. The family owned one or two sewing machines, and work was distributed to them by "manufacturers." In fact, many of these homes became satellite factories. Health and safety hazards and the misuse of child labor became issues of great concern to state and federal governments. It also became clear that laws designed to control minimum wages and
80 ISSUES AND PROBLEMS hours of work were easily subverted by unscrupulous manufac- turers who sent work out of controlled factories to remote home sites. Other manufacturers were forced to follow suit to remain competitive. Jobbers and other midcIlemen affected the process of labor and work distribution. It became more difficult to obtain accurate records of hours worked, wages paid, and the safety and health condition of workplaces. As a result, basic standards of safe, fair employment became less enforceable. What began as reasonable opportunities for those who pre- ferred to work at home evolved into no other work opportunities for many. Poor working conditions and exploitation of the widely dispersed homeworkers became the norm for whole industries. The argument of personal freedom and liberty was meaningless for workers dependent on jobbers. The price per bundle of work (piecework standards} sent to homes dropped with the arrival of each new group of immigrants or downturn in the economy. Farm families in Pennsylvania com- peted with tenement dwellers in New York for the same scarce work, keeping earnings down. A Department of Labor Women's Bureau study reported earnings of home workers in 1932 as Tow as $1.25 per 42-hour workweek. In 1983 dollars that would be less than 25 cents an hour. Child labor, hours of work, minimum wage, and even consumer protection laws passed by various states were impossible to en- force as work moved back and forth between home and factory. Eventually, 19 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico passed laws limiting or prohibiting industrial homework. These became less important after the passage of the Fair Labor Stan- dards Act (FESA) of 193S, a law giving the Wage and Hour Ad- ministration the authority to regulate or limit homework by order as a condition of enforcing wage and hour regulations. Most of the limits were adopted in the early 1940s, and with the exception of knitted outerwear, remain intact. Even so, concern has increased in recent years as cases of abuse have surfaced again in New York and other urban centers, often involving undocumented foreign workers. Many of the elements that in the past contained potential for exploitation of homeworkers exist today for electronic home- work: availability of worker-owned equipment, a large labor force with the requisite typing skills, product and labor markets that can become very competitive, and an inability of homeworkers to organize or achieve control over their work.
USE AND MISUSE OF WOItKSTATIONS AT HOAtE 81 The AFL-CIO observes that some current practices are already beginning to follow the historical pattern of abuse. Anecdotal evi- dence suggests that clerical workers and data processing clerks who do their work on terminals in their homes are pair! less than comparable office workers and are given fewer or no benefits. A Business Week article (May 3, 1982, p. 663 contains the following statement: . . . Aetna plans to pay telecommuters by the project and to use them only for "peak work," leaving them without a regular salary. They will also be ineligi- ble for health and pension benefits. Another example ~ The Nation, April 2, 1983, p. 3901: For the past five years, [Ann] Blackwell has been working at home . . . as a participant in what Blue Cross calls its "cottage keyers" program. Black- well puts in an average of 50 hours a week at the terminal, mostly while her two children, aged 7 and 13, are at school; but when she is behind quota she works at night as well. She is paid 16 cents per claim, each of which requires about 90 seconds to process. By completing about 2,000 claims a week (the company requires a minimum of 1,200), she nets about $100after deduc- tions for taxes and equipment rental charges paid to Blue Cross. That is for a 50-hour week, with no paid vacation time, no paid sick leave and no fringe benefits. We do not believe that these anecdotes necessarily prove that exploitation is widespread. Advocates of computer homework can provide their own anecdotes about cheerful and satisfied homeworkers, which, too, do not prove that it does not exist. But problems have arisen already, despite the small number of people studied by various researchers, and some general trends are being established. Steven S. Kawakami reviewed the literature on electronic homework and surveyed 11 companies and several government agencies. One paragraph of his report* in particular neatly sums up the main issues: . . (T)he traditional differentiation between clerical workers and managers/ professionals in conventional offices is apparently being repeated in home- based teleworking projects. Managerial and professional homeworkers tend to be highly paid, possess high status, enjoy payment on a salaried basis and substantially all fringe benefits, are subjected to a low to moderate amount *Electronic Homework: Problems and Prospects From a Human Resources Per- spective (report for tutorial seminar LIR 494), Institute of Labor and Industrial Rela- tions, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, September 7, 1983.
82 ISSUES AND PROBLEMS of supervision, and are usually provided with all necessary equipment and materials by employers. By comparison, the clerical homeworkers studied here receive considerably lower pay and less status, are paid on an hourly or incentive basis, sometimes lack certain insurance benefits, may be super- vised much more closely (including through on-line computer monitoring), and sometimes are required to pay for some or all of their own equipment and work materials. If electronic homework becomes widespread, it will occur only because current law gives employers a great economic advantage by allowing them to shift costs to the employee and to lower wage rates and benefits. For the simplest workbasic keyboarding and data entry the move has already begun to travel beyond our bor- ders to low-wage countries. The portability of electronic work al- lows the electronic cottage to be very far away indeed. Competition in the marketplace should not result in a contest to see who can pay the lowest wages. That approach is basically un- fa~r and, more importantly, you can't win at that game there are always people in poor areas who are willing to work for less. In- stead, a far healthier approach for all concerned is to compete on the basis of better products, more efficient operations, and better use of people. Unfortunately, business decisions are not always made to pro- vide the maximum social good. The 1983 AFL-CTO convention resolution calling for a ban on electronic homework, for example, followed a statement issued over a year earlier by the executive board of the Service Employees international Union (SElU), which concludes: SEIU believes that leaving the [computer homework] industry unregulated will have a devastating impact on the well-being, wages, hours, and working conditions of home computer workers. Because enforcement of wage, hours, and safety standards in the home is absolutely impossible, we call for an early ban on computer homework by the Department of Labor as a measure of protection for those workers entering the market for the fastest-growing occupation in the United States. Some might say that a ban is very improbable in light of poten- tially widespread support for homework from managers and pro- fessional employees who see many personal benefits in telecom- muting. They also argue that the overall economic imperative is too strong to oppose with an outright ban. And finally, there is a strong division of opinion among members of one of the largest group potentially affected women with children or other home-
USE AND MISUSE OF WORKSTATIONS AT HOME 83 bound obligations many of whom would be attracted to elec- tronic homework even under clearly exploitive conditions. Although there is a certain amount of persuasiveness in each of these arguments, the difficulty of the task is no excuse for aban- doning the responsibility to protect the best interests of working people. If a complete ban is not implemented, what else can be done? First, there is probably no realistic way to prevent managers from indulging in workaholic tendencies, if they so desire, by working additional hours at home. Many already do, and the pres- ence of a computer terminal just adds a minor new wrinkle. Professional employees, on the other hand, create a more com- plex situation. They are, by definition, employees and not man- agers. As time goes on, more professional employees will find themselves doing much of their work on computer terminals, and some may welcome the flexibility of occasional work at home. There should be no problem with those people who choose to work at home, completely voluntarily, simply as a convenience. How- ever, how can we assure that the work done at home is not necessi- tated by an increased work load, making it impossible to perform the job routinely during a normal work schedule? If homework becomes an available option, the employer may create more work to fill more time. As a first approach, electronic homework could be banned through use of the FESA regulations. Currently, executive, ad- ministrative, and professional employees are exempt from cover- age, so the ban would apply to clericals but not to managers or professional employees. The AFL-CIO's Department for Profes- sional Employees favors the elimination of the professional ex- emption to the FESA. That would still leave managers and execu- tives exempt. This situation is still not entirely satisfactory because it does not deal adequately with the needs of professional employees. To better serve the growing number of employed professionals, as well as the even larger number of clerical employees, new ways to minimize the negative effects of telecommuting on employees must be considered. A combination of legislative and collective bargaining approaches will be needed, covering such areas as: 1. Pay and benefit protections. Homeworkers must receive no less than office workers doing comparable work. 2. Union security measures. Automatic inclusion of telecom-
84 ISSUES AND PROBLEMS muters with preexisting units at the employer's office facilities, or adequate inclusion of homeworkers in organizing campaigns. 3. Import restrictions on clerical work and data processing done overseas for domestic employers. This is a minimal list, but those familiar with American history, as well as with the current state and federal labor laws, will recog- nize the enormous difficulty of enforcing such measures even if the legislative or collective bargaining framework could be put into place. How, then, can we prevent a repetition in electronic homework of the abuses that occurred so many times before in other industries using homeworkers? Anything short of a ban would be difficult to enforce once abuses became common. The time to act is before the unscrupu- Tous elements in our society force the rest of their industries to follow their direction. Business leaders must make a strong effort to satisfy the need for employee equity, even if that occasionally conflicts with the desire to maximize profits. If individual busi- nesses shirk that responsibility, or claim they can't afford it, then the fears based upon historical analysis will be confirmed. The AFL-CIO is on record for an outright ban of electronic homework. We will work toward that goal unless strong evidence is presented to us that the business community is ready to help develop other workable mechanisms to protect employee rights. In either case, we are unwilling to see history repeat itself.