The Supply Room in Oxford, Ala., had what general manager Tim Barton called “the perfect solution” to employees using their phones on the job. The company, which manufactures military uniforms and insignia, installed cellphone jammers that disrupted phone signals and prevented employees from using their phones at work. The company wanted to improve employee safety, Barton said. “We’re manufacturing. We have a 10-ton press. People can have accidents. They can put embroidery needles through their fingers because they’re not paying attention. You look down for a minute, and that’s it.”
FCC Steps In
But under the Communications Act of 1934, using a cellphone jammer is illegal, and in April 2013 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued fines against The Supply Room and against Taylor Oilfield Manufacturing Inc., in Broussard, La., for using jammers.
Fines included $10,000 for operating without FCC authorization, $5,000 for using unauthorized or illegal equipment, and $7,000 for interference with authorized communications, plus a $16,000-per-day fine for violations of the prohibition on signal jamming. In both cases, the companies cooperated with the FCC and the amounts of the fines were reduced.
In charging The Supply Room, the FCC stated: “Jammers are not only designed to impede authorized communications and thereby interfere with the rights of legitimate spectrum users and the general public, but also are inherently unsafe. For example, jammers can be used to disrupt critical public safety communications, placing first responders like law enforcement and fire fighting personnel—as well as the public they are charged with protecting—at great risk. Similarly, jammers can endanger life and property by preventing individuals from making 911 or other emergency calls. In order to protect the public and preserve unfettered access to emergency and other communications services, the act generally prohibits the importation, use, marketing, manufacture, and sale of jammers.”
In an interview, Barton said, “We did not know they were illegal. ... We thought we had an easy solution.”
Now, more than a year later, “we put a new policy [in place] immediately restricting the use of phones in the workplace,” he said. “It’s in the employee handbook. There are posters when you enter the building.”
Employees may keep their phones in their lockers, “they just can’t have them past that door after the time clock. If they’re taking a smoking break they can use them. But we’re not going to allow them in the building. We’re not going to do it, we’re not going to give in,” Barton said.
If an employee is caught using a cellphone, the person is sent home without pay.
“If it continues, we will terminate them. We have zero tolerance,” he said. It may sound harsh, he noted, but added that most workplaces do not have the kinds of potential hazards that exist at The Supply Room.
“People feel they have a right to their cellphone, but they don’t in the workplace, according to us. We don’t want somebody losing a body part. We monitor as closely as we can,” he said.
In general, cellphone use “should really be up to enterprises and employees managing the usage intelligently,” said Holger Mueller, principal analyst and vice president of Constellation Research Inc.
Companies may prohibit employees from using their phones during certain circumstances, such as when they should be waiting on customers, “as it would both be rude to the customer and hinder work. Otherwise I think employers should trust and empower employees. There are many other ways to get distracted and not be productive at work, taking frequent breaks, chatting, using a PC for other than work tasks, etc.,” Mueller said. “Should employees make the wrong judgment call, it all comes back to their manager to do coaching and oversight to prevent abuse and foster appropriate behavior.”
Scott R. Flick, a communications lawyer who is a partner with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in Washington, D.C., said companies may try installing jammers because “they don’t want employees wasting time. Rather than make a rule and then enforce it, they think it’s easier to jam.
“There wasn’t a lot of this until the cost of cellphone jammers decreased,” Flick added. Cellphone jammers can be found on the Internet for just $24.99.
“It would have been hard to get ahold of this equipment in the pre-Internet era. Now you can buy overseas and it’s surprisingly cheap. It’s not a complicated piece of equipment,” he said.
A more common problem than companies using illegal cellphone jammers, Flick said, is the problem of employees using illegal devices without company knowledge to prevent the company from being able to track a company vehicle. For example, a New Jersey man faces a $32,000 fine from the FCC for using a GPS-jamming device near Newark Liberty International Airport. The FCC began investigating after a new global positioning system guiding planes to runways at Newark began switching off without warning.
Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in Reston, Va.