Video surveillance has become commonplace in many American workplaces, but now this type of electronic snooping has reached a new frontier: the employee bathroom.
That little-known fact was discovered this week by chagrined workers at the Consolidated Freightways truck terminal in the Riverside County community of Mira Loma. Many of the terminal's 600 employees are furious after learning that their restroom visits may have been captured on video.
"We shouldn't have those kinds of Gestapo tactics here," said Robert Westreicher, a Consolidated dockworker with 15 years on the job.
Although employee-restroom snooping still is far from the norm among employers, privacy experts said the Mira Loma incident underscores that it no longer is uncommon and may be spreading. They say it most often takes place at companies where managers want to crack down on workers believed to be using restrooms as hide-outs to deal in drugs or stolen merchandise.
Consolidated officials said their secret cameras were installed in two men's bathrooms several months ago at the Mira Loma facility to track down the suspected use and sale of illegal drugs by employees. The company said that over the last year and a half, it has dismissed eight to 10 workers at the Teamsters union-represented terminal on drug- or alcohol-related grounds.
Michael Brown, a Consolidated spokesman, emphasized that the video cameras were aimed toward the entrances, in front of the sinks and, in one case, at an open area in the corner where drugs supposedly were sold. The cameras were focused "nowhere near the urinal area or the [toilet] stall area," he said.
The discovery of the lavatory surveillance was made shortly before midnight Tuesday by an employee who noticed that one of the wall mirrors over the sinks was askew. When he checked further, apparently to readjust the mirror, he came across the hidden camera.
The Riverside County Sheriff's Department, which was called in to investigate, soon found hidden cameras at a second bathroom. Brown said seven more bathrooms were checked, but no other surveillance equipment was found.
Details remained sketchy Thursday, but Brown and a spokesman for the sheriff's department said two or three cameras were seized from the two bathrooms, along with several videotapes. The case remained under investigation.
The sheriff's department spokesman, Mark Lohman, said deputies are looking into whether the company violated state law barring surveillance where people have a "reasonable expectation" of privacy. Although neither state nor federal law specifically bars video surveillance in employee bathrooms, judges normally decide such cases by balancing workers' expectations against the need for the company to maintain a safe, productive workplace.
Other key factors, legal experts said, involve whether the employer tries to limit the intrusiveness of the surveillance and the length of time over which it is used, rather than simply letting the cameras roll indefinitely.
Brown said his Menlo Park-based company, one of the nation's largest trucking concerns, is concerned about employee privacy. But, he said, the managers of the terminal, the biggest such Consolidated facility in the nation, acted because of the safety threats posed by possible drug use among truck drivers and other terminal workers.
"Our first priority is to protect our employees and to protect our customers' freight," he said. Particularly in the safety-sensitive transportation business, Brown added, "you have to protect against employees being impaired."
"There was more than a reasonable belief," he said, "that drug activity had taken place, was taking place and would take place." He said, however, that he didn't know if the company had ever filed complaints with police about the problem.
Over the last two days, many employees have been fuming. A spokesman for Local 63 of the Teamsters union, which represents most of the terminal's workers, said it is reviewing its legal options.
Westreicher, 43, said the terminal's management should be fired. "I get along with management rather well, unlike some others here, but to find out that they had cameras in the bathroom . . . it's appalling," he said.
He said use of the hidden bathroom cameras "was just too under the belt, too sneaky, as far as I'm concerned. If they're trying to clean up the drug problem, that's commendable. But to do it this way is ridiculous."
Pat Knutzen, a fellow dockworker and a Teamsters shop steward, added that "the majority of people are very upset about it, to the point of wanting to contact the CEO and president."
"They want heads to roll over it, Knutzen added. "They feel that the company has crossed some lines that they shouldn't have crossed."
In one expression of employee anger, workers passed around a flier with a picture of a man standing in front of a urinal. Printed on it was a company slogan: "Watch us deliver now."