The day before the first big snow of the season, the question on many people's minds in Massachusetts wasn't how many inches would fall, but how many snowplow drivers might sit idle. Contractors were locked in a battle with the state highway department. The sticking point: a new requirement that they take GPS cellphones along on their routes.
The phones - equipped to track location through a series of satellites known as the Global Positioning System - let highway staff monitor plowers' time on the job and whether they are driving at the optimal speed for laying down salt. Officials estimate the improved efficiency will save about $1.7 million a year.
Hundreds of plowers protested by sending the phones back. If they made mistakes logging their time on the phones, they worried, they'd lose out on pay. And they resented the implication that they waste tax dollars. People were saying, " 'It's time that these guys ... got out of the coffee shops,' " complains Fred Nava, a veteran plow driver from Kingston, Mass. "That is a slap in anybody's face."
Just before the snow fell on Dec. 5, contractors agreed to use the phones on a trial basis. But from the highway department's vantage point - one shared by a growing cadre of employers - there's no turning back from GPS.
Whether they're dispatching a fleet of garbage trucks or a team of bail-bond collectors, managers love the idea of knowing where their "assets" are. They can coordinate routes that arebased upon traffic data, offer customers a narrower time frame for delivery, and, yes, make sure mobile employees are actually on the job when they're supposed to be. The popularity of GPS in the workplace parallels its growth in the consumer realm: By 2006, according to some estimates, 4 out of 5 new vehicles will come equipped with the technology.
For workers, GPS can add convenience and security. But as the plowers' protest shows, close tracking can put a dent in morale. Privacy experts warn that employees may not realize how much they can be tracked, especially if they use a company cellphone or a vehicle with GPS during personal time.
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