At the peak of the pandemic, essential workers faced rampant tech-based surveillance, from overhead infrared thermometers to wearables that tracked their proximity to one another.
These technologies forced employees to adjust the way they worked and sometimes made their workplaces less safe. They also didn’t offer workers clear and accurate information that would help them protect their health, according to a new report by the nonprofit Data & Society. Researchers assessed the impact of Covid-19 surveillance on these mostly Black, Latino, and low-income workers — and how these practices compounded information gaps and added stress, and extra labor for laborers already vulnerable to these factors before the pandemic.
“Essential workers were at the in-between pressure points of so many different dynamics,” said Livia Garofalo, the study’s lead author and a medical anthropologist and researcher at Data & Society. “They had this super-visibility during the pandemic … and were praised as heroic, but at the same time, the conditions of precarity that they experienced way before the pandemic got heightened, too, and … the tension between worker safety and the right for workers to have access to health information about infections in the workplace.”
The study authors interviewed 50 essential workers in Spanish and English over Zoom from October 2021 to March 2022. Offering them anonymity, researchers talked with workers across the U.S. and across four industries via companies of all sizes: meatpacking and food processing, warehousing, grocery retail, and manufacturing. The authors analyzed all conversations with help from ATLAS.ti, a qualitative analysis software platform, to grasp initial key themes. In listening sessions, they shared these themes with workers for a chance for them to respond and reflect. They also spoke to public health officials and workplace health and safety experts to understand where the surveillance practices went awry.
One of the biggest concerns from workers, they found, was that corporate concerns about privacy meant that they rarely were told when someone was sick.
“We found that that push to privacy, which I think employers were honestly trying to do, meant that workers were like, ‘I might die when I go to work because I don’t know who’s sick … I am putting myself and my family so terribly at risk because I don’t have the information I desperately need with enough specificity to understand my own risk,’” said Amanda Lenhart, health & data program director at Data & Society. “Workers are caught in this middle space between regulations and health and desire.”
At a large meatpacking plant in the Midwest, an employee described how workers had to show up extra early to check into a trailer in the facility parking lot to get their temperatures checked — unable to socially distance and risking Covid-19 exposure, while also waiting in line for unpaid time. At another food-processing plant, employers with temperature scanners at entrances told workers with fevers to seek shade under a tree or keep ice-cold water bottles over their foreheads before retaking their scans.
At yet another plant, the need for monitoring amid a lack of equipment meant that one worker, in addition to her regular duties, had to serve as stand-in surveillance: watching co-workers, reminding them about masking or social distancing, and even reporting co-workers to management. And at a warehouse without these health monitors, workers were convinced that a “goofy-looking” camera and temperature sensor that their employers had installed at the entrance for health and safety didn’t actually work.
In Amazon warehouses, the researchers found, the company employed intense data collection to maximize productivity and discipline workers rather than look out for worker safety. At one facility, one worker charged with operating a “Distance Assistant” system described how cameras, a monitor, and software displayed detailed information about workers in real time.
The Distance Assistant not only showed individual workers’ proximity but also produced facility-wide social distancing and productivity scores that Amazon administrators, up until mid-2021, would use to oversee workers and front-line managers. The worker was soon beset by automated notifications from the system and from her own managers about low social-distancing scores — and levels of stress that led her to quit the job.
While Amazon workers largely aren’t unionized, in other workplaces, such as a meatpacking facility, unions stepped in to negotiate when and how managers could access surveillance footage and fought against employers using such footage to discipline workers for violating health protocols.
Despite the intense high-tech surveillance, workers at Amazon weren’t any more privy to intel that could help them make informed health decisions than those workers under simpler systems featuring forehead thermometers.
Even when workers did trust the technology or data collection process, privacy protection laws prevented companies in some cases from telling workers who had been infected. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires health information in the workplace to be strictly confidential. Unlike temperature scans, air quality sensors, GPS trackers, and tools like the Distance Assistant — which don’t collect health information at the individual level — aren’t covered under the ADA.
The authors said companies could likely have legally shared data on ventilation, social distancing, and Covid exposure. Still, public health officials, policy experts, and worker advocates Data & Society researchers spoke with recommended revising ADA guidance around health information privacy to make it easier to share this type of useful information with workers.
For workers, having so little information made it difficult to decide how best to protect themselves and their families. Faced with a dearth of data, workers deployed their own informal contact tracing, keeping an eye out for who was out that day, and calling and texting other employees to figure out which co-workers had been infected.
Not all employer surveillance strategies were haphazard or useless to essential workers. At one manufacturing plant, a man appreciated how his otherwise annoying clip-on tracker — which chirped when employees got within 6 feet of each other — was also able to inform him of a Covid exposure.
The authors said it’s possible to give workers helpful intel while also preserving confidentiality. The experts they spoke with also called for more funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, so it could enforce existing workplace safety laws and better hold employers accountable.
Researchers also see promise in workplace health and safety committees, which can provide peer-to-peer education and help rev up reporting of work safety issues amid a fear of retaliation in these industries. Some workplaces in Los Angeles and New York have piloted these types of committees. A 2021 New York law established the right of workers to create these worker health committees, while in Los Angeles these “public health councils” were officially established in 2020.
“At the end of the day, what we hope is that it brings the worker perspective to the front of some of these conversations around … pandemic safety, pandemic policies, pandemic preparedness, and as we think about overall worker health and safety,” said Lenhart. “What do workers want, and what can we change, and what have we learned, and what can we pull from across these different sectors to make change?”
Create a display name to comment
This name will appear with your comment