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 Jeff Barker/MEDILL

RFID chips embedded in the cardboard of T-shirt tags hang at the Motorola display at McCormick Place.

Businesses use RFID to track workers, pay for fewer hours

by Jeffery Barker
Jan 14, 2009


 Jeff Barker/MEDILL

Companies show off their technology at the entrance to the ProMat Show at McCormick Place.

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What is RFID?

Though Radio Frequency Identification technology has been pushed by Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in recent years, it has existed since  it was used to track planes during World War II.

An RFID tag consists of an integrated circuit that stores 96 bits of data, surrounded by an antenna. Each tag has a unique ID. A scanner, which sends out electromagnetic waves, looks for a tag that will bounce the signals back.

The scanner can then note when and where it detected a certain tag and collect any information which may have been written by another scanner.

Electronic toll passes have been using RFID for over a decade. Every warehouse pallet that goes through Wal-Mart has an RFID tag.

Some companies want to embed an RFID tag into each individual product to track it from the time it's produced until its arrival at a landfill. But this hasn't happened because it costs more than just having a barcode.

Watchdog groups such as CASPIAN call RFID tags "spychips" and worry about the technology infringing on privacy.

"Anything that moves that is of interest can be tagged," said David Horvat of the Kennedy Group, of Willoughby, Ohio, a company that puts together RFID systems. What gets tagged? "Raw materials, people." 

The same computer chips used to track razor blades and lipstick are now being used to track workers and cut jobs.

Radio Frequency Identification technology  was on display  this week by the Charlotte, N.C.-based Material Handling Industry of America at the ProMat trade show at McCormick Place.

Retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, have used the technology to track their products. But the displays at ProMat showed how businesses can track how quickly employees are working and then pay them for fewer labor hours. Retail inventories also can be chipped so fewer workers are needed to sort through them.

"Everyone says, 'I want to be able to push a button in my office and know where my guys are,'" said Bruce Smallwood of Accu-Sort Inc, of Telford, Pa., a company that makes barcode and RFID readers.

In fact, I.D. Systems Inc., of Hackensack, N.J., has installed RFID tags in 35,000 forklifts across the country, according to Kenneth Ehrman,  president. The tags are linked to the ignition, so an employee needs an authorized badge to start the engine.

The RFID tag can also track when the forklift is being operated. The business can then compare a digital log of the vehicle's time spent moving to the operator's time card and then pay them for less time. Additionally, the RFID tag causes a machine to turn off when it's left idling.

"You're paying eight hours of work for one hour of product moving in the facility," said Ehrman.

I.D. Systems received a $4 million contract from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to develop a system to track vehicles and workers innovled in such areas as baggage handling at airports.

RFID can also be used to cut a company's costs by speeding up the handling of retail goods. Each bin of products will have its own RFID tag, and that tag's code can be read by a hand-held scanner. This makes it faster for employees to find what they're looking for.

"You don't need human beings to see what's in inventory," said Jeffrey Allen of AL Systems, of Rockaway, N.J.

Companies are also using RFID to track how quickly employees work and have them compete with each other in order for everyone to work faster. If a task normally takes two minutes and an employee finds a more efficient way to get it done in one minute, then the standards are changed, said Ehrman.

Yet this could cause complaints from an employee who can't physically move faster.

"What happens if that person can't improve?" said John Brosnan of the Illinois Labor Relations Board, which mediates labor disputes.

If everyone's being made to work faster and getting more done in less time, maybe the person lagging behind will become expendable.

Allen, whose company makes software that directs RFID devices said one retail company's employee parking lot went from full to half-full after installing RFID for its inventory.

"You can replace all that extra labor with technology," said Allen.