Yvonne Rice had been a secretary in the Washington-area Blue Shield office for 11 years when her boss told her about the company's home keyer program.
Today, Rice works in the family room of her Waldorf home entering claim forms into a computer that she leases from Blue Shield. She is an at-home employe. "I love my new assignment," Rice said. "The only way anyone could get me to give up my computer right now is at gunpoint."
Unfortunately for Rice and hundreds of others across the country who have traded their 9-to-5 office routines for the freedom of home work, the AFL-CIO has pointed the gun and called for a government ban on computer work at home.
Union officials say decentralizing the work place would make it impossible for them to enforce the consumer protection and health provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The proposed union ban is directed at companies that utilize home keyers as part of their daily operations, excluding handicapped workers. Unions say the trend toward computer home keyers could lead to a return to sweat shops, minimun-wage abuse and child labor.
"We don't want to wait for the horror stories to begin," said AFL -- CIO economist John Zalusky. "The ban is intended to place on the employer the burden of proving that computer home work is not going to be injurious to the worker." Union officials did not, however, disclose any actual cases of abuse. One union official said he knew of no documented cases.
Jackie Ruff, executive director of District 925 of the Service Employes International Union (SEIU), said her union is not totally opposed to home keyers.
"What is needed," Ruff said, "is some kind of policy statement regarding home work so that unions can gain more control over the situation. All we want is for home keyers to work on safe equipment, with an opportunity for advancement and the proper health and insurance benefits, like those we have tried to get for keyers in the office." The SEIU supports the proposed ban by refusing to enter into any collective bargaining with companies that use home workers.
"These are not unsafe or crowded conditions. They are people working at home," said Steve Antosh, a lawyer for the Center on National Labor Policy. "The union is not concerned about the welfare of the employes; it is concerned with collecting union dues because it is difficult to organize people who work in their home.
"Personally, I think it is the individuals' right to choose whether or not they want to work at home, not the union's," Antosh said.
In the middle of the dispute are computer home keyers such as Rice. She pays $95 every two weeks to lease her computer from Medical Service of D.C. (the local Blue Shield office). The fee includes computer hook-up, maintenance and phone charges.
Rice says that on a good day she can process 700 claims at 16 cents each. She grosses about $500 a week. And according to Blue Cross officials, Rice and the other nine Blue Cross home keyers have a higher productivity rate and a lower error rate than the in-house keyers.
Home-based business has been touted as the work alternative of the '80s, not only for parents of young children but also for the handicapped, the homebound and the long-distance commuter. Estimates are that by 1995, more than 5 million employes will work on computers in their homes.
A survey conducted by Allied Consulting Services for Xerox Corp. found that workers who switch from in-office to in-home work can save up to $400 a month on food, transportation and clothing.
The study concluded that individual preferences -- not company policy -- will make computer home work increasingly popular. "We don't see evidence that large numbers of companies are increasing their use of home work programs," said Joanne Pratt, a consulting researcher for Allied. "There are so many problems -- red tape, extra costs and legal questions. Home work is going to continue to grow because personal computers are more affordable and people are realizing, on their own, the benefits of splitting their weeks between home work and the office."
The continued growth of computer home work is "evolutionary," not "revolutionary," Pratt added.
From her desk in the corner of her family room in Waldorf, Rice explained her support for computer home work: "I don't like unions, I wouldn't support this ban for anything. Unions can't tell me that I have no right to work at home and raise my children at home. They cannot run my life."