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DOL: “There’s an app for that!”™

July 14, 2011

"There's an app for that!" TM (http://www.apple.com/iphone/)

In May, the Department of Labor launched an app for smartphones that would “help employees independently track the hours they work and determine the wages they are owed” (DOL, 2011). The app is pretty basic and provides for start, stop and break times. There’s a brief glossary as well. Contact information for the DOL is included and work reports can be emailed to the user or other recipients.

When I downloaded the app from the AppStore by way of iTunes I noted the ratings and user comments. Some user comments stated the app was “great” and that it made keeping track of time easy. After scanning the app, I bet this is true. Other user comments included those who [seemed to be] in positions such as payroll, bemoaning the fact that they could just imagine employees sending emailed reports of their versions of time worked and how troublesome it would be when employees took it upon themselves to keep their own time and argue with payroll about discrepancies. Another user stated that it was hard enough to get employees to clock in/clock out, let alone use an app to keep track of their time. A few users complained that their tax dollars were being wasted on the development of such apps and that there were better things tax dollars could be allocated toward.

One of my initial thoughts was that the people who would be likely to be taken advantage of in terms of Wage and Hour issues, were also the people who probably didn’t have the funds to own and operate smartphones…fortunately the DOL offers printable time sheets as well, but that’s nothing new and certainly doesn’t add to the usability of the DOL smartphone app. Oh well. Never mind.

The iTunes app site points out that the DOL app lacks certain nuances that, in my experience, seem to make up the majority of payroll disputes such as “tips, commissions, bonuses, deductions, holiday pay, pay for weekends, shift differentials, or pay for regular days of rest” (iTunes AppStore, n.d.). The DOL also cautions the user not to solely rely upon the app for the sake of accurate timekeeping and that it does not address every possible situation that might be encountered in the workplace. Anybody who has ever been on the employer end of a payroll problem knows how thorny these situations can become as employees (sometimes rightly so) get pretty irritated when their hard-earned paychecks are incorrect in their perception. In this case, the app might be somewhat useful if  the employer’s payroll system is incorrect.

Interestingly, the DOL seems to have the app bug and has announced a contest intended to attract software developers. The “informAction app” challenge was launched July 14, 2011 and offers about $70,000 in prizes available for developers who make use of government datasets in “interesting and creative ways” (DOL, 2011).  The challenge is to develop applications from OSHA and Wage and Hour Inspections datasets that would provide locations of businesses, dates of inspections, penalties or other pending actions, including those related to the Fair Labor Standards Act or Child Labor laws. The stated goal is to “increase public awareness of the laws enforced by DOL to ensure fair and safe workplaces. The challenge is to utilize inspection and compliance information from the hotel, motel, restaurant and retail industries to help workers and consumers take educated action” (DOL, 2011). All of those goals are respectable. However, the most amusing part, for me at least, could be found in the judging criteria that included “Is the application implemented in a functional and elegant fashion? (20%)” and “Is the application creative, interesting, and easy to use? (40%)”.

Elegant?

Easy to use?

Hmmmm…doesn’t sound like a typical government anything to me. Nonetheless, turning over all of the possibilities in my mind became a bit of a preoccupation as my day progressed. In my role as a university instructor I have  taught technology courses that regularly examined the intended and unintended consequences of technology. Regarding the instant concept, as my thoughts raced round, I came up with some compelling ideas for uses for such apps.

I read an article today in which at least three of the four targeted industries in the DOL’s rationale for their timekeeping app were mentioned. Alright, for those employees, the app might be a pretty good thing – presuming they have access to the technology required to utilize it.

On the other hand…

Let’s say I am a union organizer and I wanted to use technology to set a few targets. All I would have to do with the [proposed to-be-developed] apps would be to utilize the GPS function to locate an array of businesses who had recent OSHA and/or Wage and Hour violations of varying types. Certainly I would be able to find disgruntled employees there feeling confident the employer is vulnerable due to recent violations. I’m going to bank on the fact that the employer’s problems are residual and that they have probably not fixed everything, including their employee relations climate. Employees don’t like working in unsafe or unfair environments and perception is reality in these cases. Employers know this data is publicly available on the web, however, if – as a union organizer – I had a handy-dandy app to assist in my targeted search – paid for by the taxpayers – gosh that’d be just wonderful!

This latter scenario is one that I would cite as an unintended consequence of a technological development with the former being an intended consequence (i.e. it solves a problem). The unintended consequence is not necessarily a development that couldn’t have been foreseen, given the recent inclination of NLRB actions. Uh, wait a minute – in yet another article I read earlier today, Josh Goldstein, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO (a federation of labor unions representing about 12 million workers), stated “fears over a private-sector organizing push are premature” (Pyrillis, 2011). Well ok then. Now don’t you feel better?

Let’s look at all of this broadly for a moment. The bottom line is that if organizations treat their employees well, theoretically they should have nothing to worry about – all things considered – level playing field -and all that. However, if campaign time is drastically shortened as has been recently proposed by the NLRB [among other types of proposals such as big changes in who would be considered a “union buster” under reporting requirements, see https://corizuppo.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/shootout-at-the-labor-relations-corral/], the playing field would hardly be level. In fact, with technological assistance such as an app that geographically points organizers to businesses that have already made mistakes and are vulnerable, the research time involved in getting to a jugular is greatly reduced and even facilitated by technology. Yep, “there’s an app for that!“™

Stepping aside from my obvious sarcasm and skepticism offered in the rhetorical sense, is it conceivable that the DOL would be funding these sorts of union-facilitating actions through seemingly innocuous “Challenges” to develop and utilize new technologies? If so, why?

As a good consumer of information one must decide for themselves. However, to be a good consumer of information some research and analysis is required. But be careful not to make your decision before you look at the background and history of what has been going on in the labor relations realm, including the political motivations involved. And remember to be objective, because if you aren’t objective you can’t look at the problem from a detached researcher point-of-view. Consider all sides of the matter – not just your personal opinion – and factor in the consequences, intended and unintended. See the range of events as they have unfolded and think about the impacts of all of these developments on the macro level, not just on the micro level. Then come back to the present – or better yet consider the future. How will businesses be impacted? Will jobs be jeopardized? Will jobs be created? What mistakes could be made in the process? How will individuals fare in all of this? Will wages go up or be lost altogether?

Now, go back to the proposed app development challenges and think like a futurist. What do you see? Is manufacturing still part of our national landscape? Is it critically ill or thriving? How about the impacts on that front…

…is there “an app for that”™?

References

Apple AppStore. (n.d.) DOL “Timesheets” app. http://www.apple.com/iphone/apps-for-iphone/

Pyrillis, R. (2011). Heightened union activity putting HR on notice. Workforce Management Online. Retrieved July 14, 2011 from http://www.workforce.com/archive/feature/recruiting-staffing/heightened-union-activity-putting-hr-notice/index.php

U.S. Department of Labor. (2011). DOL informAction App Challenge. Retrieved July 14, 2011 from http://challenge.gov/Labor/201-dol-informaction-app-challenge

U.S. Department of Labor. (2011). News release. Keeping track of wages: The US Labor Department has an app for that! Retrieved July 14, 2011 from http://www.dol.gov/opa/media/press/whd/whd20110686.htm

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