Biometrics Clock In
Biometric systems for time and attendance can reduce costs and prevent fraud.
Every morning when Romy Robb comes into work, she places her palm on a biometric hand reader that scans her hand, then she punches in a four-digit code and begins her job managing payroll for the other employees.
Sounds like something out of “Mission: Impossible,” but Robb doesn’t work for a high-security government group. She’s the payroll administrator at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Instead of using magnetic strip ID cards, employees at the luxury waterfront resort have used a biometric hand reader to clock in and out since 2004.
The reader takes a 3-D reading of the size and shape of an employee’s hand and verifies the user’s identity in less than a second.
Robb uses the system, which is manufactured by Ingersoll Rand, to clock herself in and out, and works with the system’s software to calculate payroll for the hotel’s 300 employees. She says she likes the system because it’s easy to use, employees don’t have cards to keep up with, and it eliminates the ability for one employee to clock another in or out.
“Before, with the cards, employees did some ‘buddy punching,’ which you can’t do anymore because you have to put the whole handprint there,” Robb says. “They don’t forget their time cards because you bring your hand with you, right?”
The Hilton resort is part of a small but growing group of companies that use biometrics—authentication techniques that rely on biological data—to record time and attendance.
Brian Koniuk, managing director for business transformation with Atlanta-based The Hackett Group, says his consulting firm considers biometric clocks a best practice for capturing time and attendance for companies moving away from paper time cards.
Hand scanners and finger scanners are by far the most common types of biometric machines companies use for timekeeping, but systems are available that can analyze faces, voices, veins, retinas, irises and even heartbeats.
Michigan State University professor Anil Jain, who runs the school’s biometric research program and has six patents in fingerprint matching, says hand geometry machines—where workers place their whole hand on a machine for identification—likely are the most common for use in time and attendance because the technology has been available for 25 years. Jain says fingerprint scanners are the second-most common technique for time and attendance.
Although more companies are moving toward automated timekeeping systems, biometrics only make up a small percentage of the market for time and attendance data gathering. According to 2006 payroll benchmark research from The Hackett Group, 33 percent of all companies still capture time and attendance via paper time cards.
Proponents of the use of biometrics for time and attendance say the technology eliminates business costs due to lost cards and buddy punching, while allowing for seamless transfer of information into payroll software. Critics argue the equipment invades employee privacy, degrades workers and introduces unnecessary health risks.
Analysts say the use of biometrics—both for security and timekeeping—is becoming more common in a number of different industries, including health care, research labs, fast-food restaurants and retail.
A number of hospitals and research labs, such as Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer and DuPont, use hand scanners for security access as well as time and attendance tracking. Fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts and Papa John’s Pizza have also installed hand scanners. IBM, Hertz, Disney, TJ Maxx, Nordstrom, GAP, Office Depot and Safeway all use biometric scanners at some locations, and the Transportation Security Administration recently installed fingerprint scanners for more than 55,000 employees to use in more than 450 airports nationwide.
The New York Times reported in January that the Bloomberg administration planned to spend more than $180 million on hand scanners to be used for hundreds of city workers who keep daily time sheets. But, last month, after an employee union filed charges of unfair labor practices, the city backed off its original proposal, deciding to allow each individual agency to make its own choice.
While the Bloomberg administration maintained that the use of high-tech devices, including scanners, would make payroll administration more efficient and save city personnel costs, unions representing city workers protested on the grounds that scanners are degrading, intrusive and unnecessary.
A major concern of workplace privacy groups is whether scanning devices may be vulnerable to data theft or linked with other personal information.
“You have to ask the question: Why are you using biometrics? If it’s just to have people clocking in and out by using an iris scan or fingerprint scanner, that’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” says Melissa Ngo, director of the identification and surveillance project for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “When you start to collect information, you need to figure out why are you collecting it, what will it be used for, who will be able to access it and how will you have security set up so people’s privacy rights won’t be violated?”
Jain agrees that employers need to consider both the possibility of machine error and whether biometric databases can be accessed by outside hackers.
“We have been reading a lot that Social Security data is getting stolen,” Jain says. “So what guarantee do we have that our fingerprint will not get stolen? Passwords can be reset and cards can be re-made, but fingerprints cannot be reset.”
Employee opinions are mixed on the issue. According to the American Payroll Association’s 2005 Getting Paid in America survey, 55 percent of nearly 30,000 employees surveyed said they “wouldn’t have a problem” with the use of biometrics to record time and attendance, but 27 percent said it would be an invasion of employee privacy. (Eighteen percent didn’t have an opinion.)
Employees sometimes raise concerns about having the fingerprinting machines turn over information to the FBI or other law enforcement officials, but Jana Moak, president and CEO of Enfield, Conn.-based Control Module Inc. (CMI), says most commercial time and attendance systems save data points rather than actual fingerprint images and are not compatible with law enforcement databases.
However, Jain says that, depending on the system, some biometric fingerprint machines do store data that could potentially be used for comparisons against law enforcement databases.
In addition, the fingerprint devices can be “spoofed” through impersonation. In 2002, a Japanese mathematician fooled a number of fingerprint readers by creating fake fingers using gelatin, and researchers at West Virginia University reported they were able to fool fingerprint readers between 40 percent and 94 percent of the time using Play-Doh fingers or cadaver fingers.
But manufacturers argue that while some employees might be willing to swipe a friend’s card or punch a clock for them, it’s unlikely anyone would be willing to make a fake finger or use a dead one.
As for health concerns, Jonathan Meltzer, product marketing manager for the data collection devices at Chelmsford, Mass.-based Kronos, says using a handprint or fingerprint biometric scanner is no different from touching a doorknob, handling money or shaking hands.
If employees are still concerned, they can and should clean the biometric sensor with alcohol before using it. “We have found leaving cleaning solutions and a cloth next to the terminal eliminates employee health concerns,” Meltzer wrote in an e-mail, adding that more than 2 million U.S. employees currently use biometric terminals to track time and attendance each day.
Selecting a System
Companies have an array of vendors to choose from when selecting biometric equipment. Some manufacturers sell directly to customers, but many sell their products through resellers who also bundle software.
One of the most basic choices is whether to use equipment that scans handprints or fingerprints. Manufacturers of each type of equipment claim that their technology is superior and causes fewer problems.
Michigan State’s Jain says that with hand reader technology it doesn’t matter whether hands are dirty or greasy (which will cause a problem with fingerprint censors) and employees generally have fewer privacy concerns with hand scanners. On the other hand (pun intended), he says fingerprint scanners can be small enough to use on mobile phones, laptops or cash registers.
Anthony Onesto, director of human resources for Long Island City, N.Y.-based Fresh Direct, says his company switched from hand scanners to fingerprint scanners last May.
Fresh Direct, which delivers groceries to workplaces and residents in the New York metro area, has 1,800 employees working in a 300,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse. The nonexempt workers use more than 30 Kronos fingerprint scanners to clock in and out.
Onesto says the hand scanners the company used previously had several problems: The cold in the manufacturing facility caused problems with hand recognition, employees who wore new rings could cause false rejects, and some workers with small hands had trouble using the machines. He said at least one worker also objected to having his right palm scanned for religious reasons. With the new equipment, Fresh Direct employees put a finger into a scanner and enter their employee number. In case an employee injures a finger, workers record two digits.
Onesto says the new finger scanners cause much less error than the hand scanners, although the cold and humidity in the building can cause occasional glitches in the new machines as well. He says training a new employee on how to clock in and out using the system takes “about 25 seconds.”
The new scanners also allow employees to perform functions other than clocking in and out. Fresh Direct’s HR department has trained people in operations to teach workers how to approve their time sheets for accuracy and look at their schedules. (Operations supervisors also approve employees’ time sheets.)
“We push self-service,” Onesto says. “Who better to approve time sheets than the employees?”
Also, as biometric technology becomes more commonplace, some businesses are integrating it into other HR technology systems, such as compensation and payroll.
At the Hilton resort in Huntington Beach, employees punch in work codes and the system automatically calculates wages from one of the hotel’s five different pay rates and feeds the information into NOVAtime Technology Inc.'s time and attendance system.
Robb, the payroll administrator, prints out the reports each day for managers’ approval. If a worker needs to be paid for sick or vacation leave, Robb enters the information into the software. She says the system even calculates employees’ meal costs, information needed for tax reporting.
“I just love it. I wouldn’t want to change to anything else,” Robb says.
CMI’s Moak says biometrics can streamline payroll, eliminate discrepancies and reduce employee ID overhead costs.
Moak recommends that employers considering purchasing biometric systems pay attention to the back-office technology and software that goes along with the system. Will the new system easily feed into existing payroll software? Are exceptions hard to handle?
Moak notes that many of today’s biometric terminals can communicate on the Internet, allowing companies to remotely access employee data and integrate time and attendance data into back-end databases, including accounting, human resource management, enterprise resource planning and payroll systems.
In general, biometric equipment costs more than card scanners or punch card systems, so companies must consider whether the extra purchase costs bring a return on investment. Most companies that have gone with biometric equipment cite eliminating buddy punching, as well as costs associated with employee badge cards and time spent on payroll, as reasons biometrics is worth the investment.
Moak says that the use of biometrics for time and attendance previously only made sense for large enterprises, but advances in technology have made it cost-effective for smaller companies.
She says CMI’s scanners run from $750 to $999 for a small unit up to $3,500 for kiosks with functions that allow employees to access salary, benefits and scheduling information.
Ultimately, companies should weigh costs, back-office functionality and employee privacy concerns to decide whether implementing biometrics is a mission that makes sense.
Elizabeth Agnvall is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.