Employee Recognition at Kroger Grocery Stores for Clocking in, Security

Mike Draughon pushed his finger down firmly.

A detailed image of his fingerprint's fine lines appeared on the screen -- and it was a match.

But Draughon is no criminal. The clean-cut, 19-year-old was simply clocking in to work as a grocery bagger and cashier at Kroger.

"I kind of like it. It's real high-tech," said Draughon, as he reported for work last week at the supermarket at 65th Street and Keystone Avenue.

In what labor experts say may be a first for the area, Kroger's Indiana stores are rolling out a system of using fingerprint images to clock employees in and out.

At least two other Indianapolis stores -- at 680 Twin Aire Drive and 4202 S. East St. -- already have the system. All 100 Indiana Kroger stores are expected to implement the technology by sometime next year.

The Cincinnati-based grocery chain has overcome workplace privacy concerns and union resistance to implement the system designed to keep track of attendance and prevent employees from inflating each other's timesheets.

"It's almost -- not quite -- but almost error-proof," said Jeff Golc, spokesman for Kroger. In the past "we've had people who've clocked out for each other, sometimes accidentally because you'd pick up the wrong card."

Kroger hired Austin, Texas-based Biometric Access Co. to install its $750 machines, which use a biometric process to scan an employee's index finger.

For an employee, it means walking up to what looks like a credit-card swiping machine and punching in an identification number. When the screen lights up, the worker places an index finger on a pad and the system scans for a match.

"Some employees had questions," said Charisse Thill, technology manager for the 65th Street store. "For the most part, they were open to change."

Biometric imaging is slowly finding its way into workplaces nationwide.

Illiana Financial Credit Union in Calumet City, Ill., has used a fingerprint-recognition system to track its tellers and loan officers since 2001.

Officials in Jefferson County, Ala., recently doled out $460,000 for biometric time clocks in an effort to save on fraudulent overtime claims by non-salaried employees.

But the time-clock change hasn't come without resistance. Workplace rights advocates say such tracking is invasive. Some employees worry their fingerprints, a tool used by police to catch criminals, will be used to run background checks.

"People were kind of skeptical at first," said Faye Martin, a cake decorator at Kroger's 65th Street store. "Because your fingerprint, it tells everything."

Kroger's employees' union initially tried to oppose the system, said Lew Piercey, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3 in Indianapolis, but Indiana was one of Kroger's last districts to implement the process nationwide and grievance efforts already had been shot down.

"We're certainly concerned," said Piercey. "As with any other technology, we're going to keep an eye on it."

Even Piercey concedes the technology that Kroger uses doesn't open employees up to many privacy concerns.

The biometric process takes a small image of the fingerprint, created by five identification points on the forefinger, to find a match. The prints are of little use to police, who require nine points, Biometrics officials said.

With this type of system, an invasion-of-privacy claim by an employee would be tough to argue, said Ken Yerkes, chair of the labor and employment division at Indianapolis law firm Barnes & Thornburg.

"The legal risks (for an employer) based on the present information are limited," he said. "If it's managed properly, I don't see any legal issues."

Biometric imaging in the workplace is so new that a record of how many employers are using it doesn't exist.

"We did a study on privacy issues, but it didn't include fingerprints," said Jen Jorgensen, a spokeswoman for the Society for Human Resource Management, an industry group.

That study did reveal that employees are much less likely to agree to electronic monitoring of any form than human resource professionals.

Biometric Access, the Texas-based company, which provides Kroger with its machines, said the system has multiple benefits for employers, beyond tracking employees' honesty.

It reduces operating costs, automates complicated payroll calculation and improves employee productivity, said Holly Rios, spokeswoman for Biometric.

It's a system that's gaining momentum at workplaces nationwide, she said, because it prevents situations in which employees clock each other in.

"Where one employee says, 'Hey, I'm going fishing. Clock me in,'" Rios said, "this saves on payroll costs."

Even if it's only 10 or 15 minutes at a time, "it eliminates any discrepancy," she said.

Workplace rights advocates argue such a "big brother" system actually can dampen employee morale.

"The greatest of these (electronic-monitoring) threats has been the threat to (employees') privacy," said Lewis Maltby, president of National Workrights Institute, a Princeton, N.J., nonprofit that focuses on human rights in the workplace.

ABOUT BIOMETRICS: Biometrics is an automatic identification system that uses physical or behavioral characteristics of a person to verify his/her identity. Some of these technologies are already in use or are being developed:

--Fingerprints: Oldest method of identification, which uses the unique series of ridges and furrows on the surface of the finger.

--Hand/palm prints: Unlike fingerprints, the human hand isn't unique, but it is possible to use the various individual features and measurements of fingers and hands for identification.

--Handwriting/signature: Analyzes the way a user signs by studying the speed, velocity and pressure exerted by a hand holding a pen, as well as the shape of the finished signature.

--Face recognition: Analyzes the characteristics of a person's face and measures the overall structure, including distances between eyes, nose and mouth.

--Voice recognition: A person recites a sentence or two of speech, which then is digitized and stored. This voice sample is used later to compare a person's vocal tones and frequencies.

--Eyes -- iris/retina: Iris recognition uses the features that are present in the colored tissue surrounding the pupil. Retinal scanning uses the layer of blood vessels at the back of the eye.

--Vascular patterns: Uses the thickness and location of the veins in a person's hand or face.

Copyright ©2005 The Indianapolis Star