Freeman Klopott, Medill News Service
WASHINGTON -- BlackBerry devices. Cell phones. Pagers. Wireless
Internet access. Broadband at home.
The growing list of communications technologies that links workers to
the workplace 24/7 increasingly is blurring the lines between work and
Employees surf the Web at work, checking the weather, making travel
plans, and shopping. At home, many send e-mail, continue their work
chores on the Internet, and otherwise stay connected with their
While employers rarely discourage the extra work done at home, many
want employees' attention focused on work while at the office.
In a recent decision, a New York City administrative law judge adds
another angle to the debate between employers and employees over
personal use of the Internet in the workplace. Ruling in the case of
an employee who allegedly used the Internet for personal reasons
during work hours, the judge, John B. Spooner, compared Internet use
at work to reading a newspaper or making a telephone call. (Go here
for more on the increased use of the Internet as a news source.)
"It should be observed," Spooner wrote, "that the Internet has become
the modern equivalent of a telephone or a daily newspaper, providing a
combination of communication and information that most employees use
as frequently in their personal lives as for their work."
Spooner recommended that Toquir Choudhri, a 14-year veteran of the
city Department of Education, receive the slightest reprimand for
insubordination, even though supervisors wanted him fired for using
the Internet for personal matters after he was told not to.
Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet and American Life Project says it
"sounds like the judge was recognizing a reality for lots of workers."
Rainie says the "boundary between work and leisure, work and home, is
becoming more permeable."
The New York administrative court's rulings serve as recommendations
to city department heads who make a final decision. In fiscal year
2005, 99 percent of department heads agreed with the findings and
altogether rejected just 16 percent of the recommendations.
Loss of Money?
Despite the mixing of work and personal time, employers fear the loss
of salaried time from workers who are not devoting all their workplace
time to, well, work.
A recent survey by http://Salary.com claims employers waste $759
billion per year paying for employees who are online for personal
reasons. But Rainie calls this and other reports like it "junk pieces
of research" because they don't account for work at home.
And a December 2002 survey conducted by the University of Maryland
supports Rainie. The survey finds that workers with Internet access at
home and at work used an average of 3.7 hours per week of work time
for personal Internet use. But they spend more time, 5.9 hours per
week, surfing for work outside office hours. (Go here for some
background on the issue.)
Existing case law, Rainie says, gives employers the right to dictate
how their computers are used, but generally such rules "get to
different aspects of the same question: How do people spend their
time? What are they supposed to be doing when they're on the job? What
do they actually do on their job?"
For Choudhri, the veteran of New York City's Department of Education
who could possibly still lose his job despite this initial ruling in
his favor, the answer to these questions is pretty clear. Much like
fellow employees, Choudhri used the Internet during down time.
In one instance, Choudhri was reprimanded for checking the weather on
the Internet while eating his lunch, Spooner writes in the decision.
Martin Druyan, Choudhri's lawyer says, "If everyone in the office has
no work and everyone is on the Internet, unless management gives them
work or forbids them from doing it, then people are going to use the
Not the End
"This saga is not over," Druyan says. "We're midstream here, something
is gonna happen."
Since the March 9 ruling, the embattled employee has spent 30 days
suspended without pay. He is back on the payroll, the department says,
but he is not at work.
The Department of Education says Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein is
expected to make a final decision sometime during the week of April
Copyright 2006 PC World Communications, Inc.
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