Phil Richards used to like his job driving a forklift in a produce and meat warehouse. He took pride in steering a case of beef with precision.
Now, he says, he has to speed through the warehouse to meet quotas, tracked by bosses each step of the way. Through a headset, a voice tells him what to do and how much time he has to do it.
It makes the Unified Grocers warehouse in Santa Fe Springs operate smoothly with fewer employees, but it also makes Richards' work stressful.
"We're just like human machines," said Richards, 52. "But with machines, they don't care whether you feel good, or if you're having a bad day."
Technology has eliminated many onerous work tasks, but it's now one of the factors contributing to a harsher work environment.
Employers are using technology to read emails and monitor keystrokes, measure which employees spend the most time on social networking websites and track their movements inside and outside the office. They can see who works fastest and who talks the most on the phone. They can monitor how much time people spend talking to co-workers — and how much time they spend in the bathroom.
It's all part of an effort to drive down costs and squeeze as much production as possible out of each employee.
"In the kind of economic environment we're in now, companies become very risk-averse. Managers at every level are saying, 'I need to know what everyone is doing,'" said Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a global association of human resource professionals. "But there is concern that this technology is being used in some Big Brother way to check in on employees."
For companies, the reward is financial. Unified Grocers, which supplies food to grocery chains including Vons and Gelson's, trimmed its payroll 25% from 2002 to 2012 — but managed to increase sales 36%, according to regulatory filings.
If workers in the warehouses complete their tasks faster than expected, they earn a bonus, which helps reduce labor costs because the company can get more work done with fewer people, said Rod van Bebber, senior vice president of operations. Companies learned a lesson during the recession, he said: If there are fewer people and the same amount of work, employees will find a way to get it done.
If everyone does a little more, that can mean "one less employee you have to hire," Van Bebber said. "That's one less health and welfare package."
For a company like Unified Grocers, he added, it's a matter of survival.
"If the independent grocer is going to compete with the major chain, you've got to be as efficient as you can," he said. "That way we can compete and pay our people good money and benefits."
But the cost of efficiency may be worker satisfaction. Workers thrive when they feel trusted and allowed to experiment, including at places such as Google Inc., where employees get time to work on their own projects, Cheese said. When employees are watched too closely, "it becomes a micromanagement control system and you disengage the workforce," he said.
The sanitation truck that James Brooker III drives in Raleigh, N.C., has a GPS device that enables his bosses to track his every move. Co-workers have been disciplined for driving too slowly or for taking an extra 10 minutes on a lunch break on a tough day, he said.
"You're always worried that you're not doing your job correctly," he said. "It makes you stressed out, and there's so much pressure to rush."
As a nurse at Mills-Peninsula Health Services in Burlingame, Calif., Genel Morgan was required to wear a badge around her neck with a tracking device so the hospital could see where she was at all times. Sometimes, a camera in the intensive care unit would switch on so doctors could observe the nurses at work and make suggestions based on patients' charts.
Sutter Health, which runs the hospital, says that full-time nurses at its Bay Area hospitals earn salaries of $136,000 a year on average, not including benefits, and that technology helps improve patient safety and bring down healthcare costs.
To Morgan, however, the monitoring seems focused on the employees, not the patients. She retired last week, earlier than she had intended, in part because of what she described as an intrusive atmosphere at work.
"Sometimes, I feel that they're questioning that we're not on top of it," she said.
Elaine Murszewski worked in customer service for more than 30 years. The job she found two years after getting laid off was in customer service too, but her new employer monitored her closely, taking the personal touch out of the job, she said.
The new employer, payroll provider Paychex, kept track of the length of her phone calls, the amount of time she took between calls, and the times she wasn't at her desk. If a caller was particularly difficult, she said, the numbers didn't reflect that.
"Metrics are an employee's worst enemy," she said.
Those being watched at home or in the office may complain about surveillance. But there isn't much they can do about it.
Employers can read workers' email, see what websites they visit and read any emails or text messages stored on work-issued computers or smartphones. In all but six states (California is one of the exceptions), employers can require employees to provide their passwords to social networking sites. And in most states, employers can monitor their employees and are not required by law to tell them it's happening.
Michael Cunningham found this out the hard way.
His employer suspected he wasn't working when he said he was and put a GPS device on Cunningham's personal car without telling him. Officials tracked him driving to a diner instead of work, tracked his son driving to an internship and tracked him during an approved vacation in Massachusetts. A year later, they fired him, explaining the GPS had confirmed their suspicions that he was falsifying his time sheets.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Cunningham sued his employer, the New York state Department of Labor, but lost. Judges in New York's Appellate Division ruled that the law does not prohibit employers from using GPS to monitor employee behavior if it is relevant to the employee's job performance.
The ruling means that although the government has to get a warrant to use a GPS device to track criminals, it can legally track its employees without approval from the employee or a judge, said Corey Stoughton, the ACLU lawyer on the case.
Research firm Gartner Inc. predicts that 60% of corporations will monitor employee behavior on social media sites by 2015, up from 10% at present.
That growing focus on workers' behavior is good news for companies such as Kronos Inc., which designs systems to monitor employee performance.
Kronos tracks when employees come to work, when they leave and which ones have high rates of absenteeism.
The Chelmsford, Mass., company has revenue of $2 billion worldwide, a big part of the $10-billion global market for HR software, said Paul Hamerman, a Forrester Research analyst.
Engine maker Briggs & Stratton Corp., based in Milwaukee, used Kronos software to determine why some assembly lines worked more efficiently than others. Part of the reason was that some workers were showing up late to work. When that problem was corrected, assembly line performance improved, said Christopher Albanese, a former business analyst with Briggs & Stratton.
"Companies are saying the last frontier to improve profitability is to look more closely at labor cost management," said Joyce Maroney, director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos.
Software from Awareness Technologies sends reports about which workers spend the most time shopping online or checking out Facebook. It can alert employers when employees' emails include certain words such as "drugs" or "fantasy football" and can remotely disable employees' devices if they're doing something the employer thinks they shouldn't be doing.
CEO Brad Miller says that the company has added 200 corporate customers a month since 2010, and that revenue has increased 25%.
When executives at Dixie Specialty Insurance, a Mississippi company, noticed a few employees were working more slowly than they once had, they installed software from Awareness Technology on company computers to monitor what websites the employees were visiting and block the more popular ones. Productivity jumped, said Cassandra Phillips, the company's information technology manager.
Software from another company, SpectorSoft Corp., tracks how much time employees spend on certain websites and can measure whether it is "active time" — whether or not the employee is typing or clicking, for example.
"With small businesses, the focus is often on the productivity angle," said Nick Cavalancia, vice president of marketing at SpectorSoft. "They are worried about the bottom line."