In the Appalachian coal country of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., one of the largest and busiest factories in Luzerne County produces a product unlike those of neighboring industrial workplaces: millions of bits of electronic data.
There, about 1,000 federal workers, almost all women, transcribe facts and figures from 131 million W-2 payroll forms a year into the computer banks at one of three regional data centers of the Social Security Administration.
SSA data transcription "has to be one of the most boring and tedious jobs that there is," said Joseph Corcoran, a nine-year SSA veteran. "On top of that, you might have to 'key' about 150 records an hour, and that adds to the stress."
Security measures such as employe identification codes, which the SSA originated in the 1970s to detect fraud, now lend themselves to computer monitoring of individual productivity and to the adoption of performance standards.
SSA's Motorola video terminals keep a running count, which operators can see, of the number of forms keyed that day. Daily results are entered into a second computer system that captures what the SSA calls "work experience data" used for employe evaluations.
A primary complaint about the monitoring is that performance standards are periodically changed, so that workers who were required to key 115 forms per hour now may have to do a minimum of 138, a 20 percent increase, said Corcoran, who is president of Local 2809 of the American Federation of Government Employees. In some types of work, the standards have increased 50 percent or more in the last few years, he said.
"For a small percentage of employes, the standards per hour are not really a big thing because they are fast. But for a large percentage of people, it is a big thing. When they raise the standards another 15 items an hour, it's tough to make, especially if you had trouble meeting the old standard," Corcoran said.
"So you end up sitting at the machine longer. If you have to go to the bathroom, you don't go till you make 165," he said. "People handle tension differently. While others can do the 165, go have a smoke and even get a head start on the next hour's work . . . some people are forced to work in high gear all the time. It is like a car. If you are constantly racing it at high gear, it will start to burn out. And what management said in effect was that if people start to burn out, then call me."
Carolyn Pekarski, a 13-year veteran at Wilkes-Barre, said that in the past, overzealous supervisors have confronted workers, including her, with computer printouts that detailed the length of time lapses in which a worker failed to enter data. The printouts showed the speed of the faster and slower workers, she said, "and the supervisor will say, 'So-and-so is doing this much, why can't you?' It gets very stressful."
Corcoran said Local 2809 recently completed a health survey of 62 data transcribers and found that about half of them reported frequent complaints of extreme fatigue; neck, shoulder and back pain; eye strain and irritability. The findings mirror various federal studies of video display terminal operators whose work is considered among the most stressful of all occupations, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
"Most of the workers are females who happen to have a couple of kids. They have a home where they are expected to cook meals, wash clothes, deal with kids. And they say the stress they feel on the job filters into their home life, that they are not able to cope with things at home as much as they should. I think that means more domestic troubles and all sorts of troubles," Corcoran said.
Edward P. Arthur, director of the SSA office of central records operations, said that while he was not familiar with the union's health survey, the SSA is studying the health and working conditions of data entry workers in response to what he called "universal" concern about the uncertain health effects of VDT operations.
Arthur said that performance standards, drafted with the aid of the SSA's "manpower utilization" experts, are reasonable because they are aimed at the speed of typical workers.
Arthur said that since 1982 the entire Wilkes-Barre work force has been able to meet the SSA minimum, and that last year, for instance, 41.5 percent of the workers received ratings that exceeded the satisfactory level.
Those whose overall performance is rated outstanding are eligible for cash awards, Arthur said. So far this year, 85 workers have received bonuses averaging $305.
Standards are changed each year, he said, because of changes in the total work load of processing every American's W-2 forms and because of technological changes that affect the speed of the work itself.
"You look at the performance you are getting for the money you are spending," he said. "If the standards are too high, experience will show it and we will lower it," he said.
The union has challenged the SSA computer-monitored performance standards under provisions of the Civil Service Reform Act, but arbitrators have ruled that the SSA's actions fell within its management rights.