with Tonya Riley
Are you standing or sitting too close to your co-worker? Soon a bracelet might vibrate to let you know.
Companies are rolling out wearables that will buzz or light up when co-workers aren't maintaining social distance in the workplace. They're part of a flood new technologies intended to help companies adapt their workplaces to keep people safe amid the global pandemic.
“People are moving around, and you want to have a gentle reminder to maintain social distance,” said Campbell Macdonald, the chief executive of Proxxi, a Canadian company that is selling such bracelets. Macdonald says the company has already sold tens of thousands of wristbands that will vibrate when workers are within six feet of each other, the recommend spacing from health officials.
The wristbands, which cost $100, will start shipping to customers at the end of the month.
Ford is already experimenting with Samsung smartwatches in its factories that alert employees when they've gotten too close to each other. Workers at a port in Antwerp, Belgium, are also wearing devices that look like sports watches made by a European company, which give warning signals if they come within five feet of a co-worker.
The wearables highlight the extreme steps that companies may take to ensure workers are complying with social distancing recommendations during the pandemic.
The bracelets underscore just how unrecognizable American workplaces may be as people start returning to them. They're the latest sign of an expected expansion of employee monitoring technology amid the pandemic — which is raising fresh privacy concerns.
The explosion of tracking technology in the workplace mirrors what's happening in Western countries that are developing contact tracing apps, which would notify someone if they've come into contact with a person who is infected. Most of these initiatives are voluntary for regular consumers, however, and there is a concern workplaces could make using the technologies mandatory for employees. Bracelets would be particularly easy for employers to require because they can easily see if an employee is wearing one or not.
Macdonald says it's up to the employers to make sure their employees are comfortable with the technology and understand its benefits.
“It's not really designed to be a Big Brother solution,” he told me.
“If you use it in an open way, and you're transparent with how it's being used and it's used for good, then you're not going to have a problem,” he said. “If you're using it in a way that's undermining the trust of your employees, I think you're going to run into more problems.”
Many of the buzzing bracelets could also be used for contact tracing.
Proxxi's Halo bracelets also have a contact-tracing feature, where employers can see which of their employees has been in contact with others, registering when and how many times that contact took place. Macdonald says the company does not collect any specific location data, as it relies on Bluetooth technology, making it similar to contact tracing tools that Apple and Google are rolling out.
Macdonald says the bands collect no personal identifying information, and they only record interactions with other bands. He said employers can assign the bands to individual employees to enable the tracing.
“I understand that people are concerned about health data, but we're not revealing health data and we're not storing that,” he said. “It's simply just interactions with other people.”
Other companies have been rolling out smartphone apps to enable contact tracing in the workplace. PwC has introduced a new contact-tracing tool for companies so they can determine which other workers may need to be tested or quarantined if someone falls ill with the virus.
So far, the social distancing bracelets have been rolled out primarily in industrial settings where workers may already be used to wearing safety equipment.
No one was making bracelets with these features until a few months ago.
Before the pandemic, Proxxi was known for producing bracelets that alerted workers they were approaching a dangerous source of electricity and at risk of electrocution. The company began to explore the social distancing bracelets after existing customers in the construction industry inquired about them. Rombit, the company supplying the Belgian dockworkers, was supplying wearables that alerted workers when vehicles were approaching, or if someone fell into water.
Demand is growing for traditional office settings as well.
Buzzing bracelets are among the many measures businesses are considering as they outfit their workplaces with hands-free technology, plexiglass barriers and hand sanitizer in anticipation of employees' return. Proxxi's bracelets were recently included in the technology section of a “Back to Work” tool kit that venture capital firm Madrona prepared for businesses. Macdonald says he's also received inquiries from the military and government officials.
“Each culture is going to be different based on what the dynamic was before this happened and how they implement the technology,” he said.
Our top tabs
Smartphone data is informing decisions about reopening the economy. But it has limits.
The data was effective in tracking the public's compliance with the national shutdown early in the pandemic. But epidemiologists aren't sure the data will be as useful in predicting the result of allowing nail salons, movie theaters and other public places to reopen, Craig Timberg reports. Maps derived from the data show where people travel and how long they stay, but they don't show how well they socially distance once they reach their destinations.
Epidemiologists say that's key to understanding coronavirus transmission.
“In general, more movement does increase the risk of transmission, but you also have to take that with a grain of salt,” Saskia Popescu, a George Mason University epidemiologist, told Craig. “It’s not a crystal ball. It’s a forecasting process.”
The University of Washington recently entered location data — collected from millions of smartphones — into their equations to reflect the growing restlessness of Americans about two months into widespread stay-at-home orders. The models predicted alarming results, and the projected mortality from covid-19 nearly doubled.
But that conclusion is beyond what the science can reliably forecast at this point, epidemiologists tell Craig.
“Although more traveling almost certainly means more transmission, the amount depends on the subtleties of human interaction — How close did people stand? Did they sneeze? Were there physical barriers such as a closed car window? — that smartphone location data does not reveal,” Craig writes.
Google dramatically scaled back its internal diversity and inclusion programs over the past two years.
The cuts appear to be driven by fear of conservative backlash, eight current and former employees tell April Glaser at NBC News.
At least three diversity programs have been cut since 2018, and their team members have either left or been shuffled to other departments. Employees say that a lawsuit from former engineer James Damore alleging the company was biased against white men shifted the way the company spoke about diversity. Damore's lawsuit – which he dropped this week after a settlement with Google – set off further backlash from conservatives.
“In 2018, after all the Damore stuff, the higher-ups stopped saying the word diversity and were instead saying D&I, as in D ampersand I,” one current employee active in diversity advocacy at Google told April. D&I refers to diversity and inclusion programs.
Another former employee alleges that a head of artificial intelligence research refused to give updates on diversity and inclusion efforts because they could become a “liability.” The research director directed NBC News's request for comment to Google.
Melonie Parker, Google’s chief diversity officer, denied that fear of conservatives drove the cuts. Rather, she said, Google made changes to its diversity programs to make them easier to scale globally.
“Google has never shied away from using the word diversity. We have always used that word. We are not directing anyone not to use this word anymore,” Parker said.
Local officials cleared Tesla to reopen its main manufacturing plant next week – after chief executive Elon Musk already opened the plant earlier this week.
Alameda County officials say that the local Fremont Police Department will enforce the safety guidelines Tesla agreed to, Rachel Lerman reports. Both the county and Tesla did not respond to questions about the plant's specific reopening timeline.
The county reached an agreement with Tesla just hours after President Trump tweeted his support of the company reopening on Tuesday.
But workers fear that the safety guidelines don't go far enough, they tell Ahiza García-Hodges at NBC News.
“It’s hard to stay six feet from people,” one employee said. “It’s a production line. There’s a lot of people.”
Others fear that if they stay home for personal safety reasons they'll risk losing their jobs, despite an email from Musk telling workers to not return if they feel uncomfortable doing so.
Jessica Naro, an employee at the Fremont plant, said a supervisor told her over the phone that she would be fired if she didn't come back this week. The supervisor later changed their warning to say she would no longer be eligible for unemployment. Once Tesla opens with Alameda County approval, workers will have less legal standing in refusing to work, experts tell NBC News.
Amazon wants Congress to establish a price gouging law to protect consumers from $400 hand sanitizer during the pandemic.
The company made the proposal as it struggles to stem a tide of third-party sellers jacking up prices on cleaning supplies and other goods during the pandemic.
Both members of Congress and state attorneys general slammed Amazon for the sellers' markups. But a patchwork of state laws on price gouging makes it hard for the company to fully crack down, Amazon vice president of public policy Brian Huseman argues in an open letter. A federal law that creates a uniform standard for price gouging would help the company's enforcement and “would ensure that there are no gaps in protection for consumers,” he writes.
Amazon suggests the law should be triggered by any national emergency and should apply to vendors who set the price, such as third-party sellers – not the marketplace itself. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).
“Put simply, we want to avoid the $400 bottle of Purell for sale right after an emergency goes into effect, while not punishing unavoidable price increases that emergencies can cause, especially as supply chains are disrupted,” Huseman wrote.
Democrats leading the House Energy and Commerce Committee introduced their own legislation to empower states and the Federal Trade Commission to seek civil penalties for price gouging last month.
The Senate failed to pass a bipartisan amendment that would have excluded Internet browsing and search histories from warrantless surveillance.
The amendment, introduced by Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), failed by just one vote. Four members did not vote.
But in a win for privacy hawks, the Senate did pass an amendment by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), which will increase oversight of the court that grants warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Senate will vote on a final amendment by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) before an expected final vote today on the reauthorization of the vast surveillance powers.
More news from the Hill:
The digital race to 2020
Inside the industry
Uber will begin requiring drivers and passengers to wear masks starting Monday.
The company will committ $50 million to providing supplies to drivers and has already distributed about 5 million masks, it announced in a blog post.
Drivers will need to verify they're wearing a mask using facial recognition technology. Passengers will not be required to verify they're wearing a mask on the app, but drivers will have to the option to reject rides from those who aren't complying. Lyft announced similar requirements last week.
Gig Workers Rising, a group that advocates for ride-hail drivers and other gig workers, tweeted that masks aren't enough when employees are still calling for better paid sick leave.
This is not a meaningful solution.— Gig Workers Rising (@GigWorkersRise) May 13, 2020
For months, Uber has fought paid sick leave for all drivers, paid family leave so they can care for relatives, & employee classification so they could collect unemployment.
THOSE would be meaningful solutions. This is a band-aid.
Do better. https://t.co/gjz54KEK6J
More industry news:
Amazon will extend its hourly wage increases and overtime pay for workers through the end of the month.
The company introduced the measures for workers during the coronavirus pandemic in March and originally intended to sunset them this week, Annie Palmer at CNBC reports. The company also ended its unlimited unpaid time off policy earlier this month.
Workers argue that both measures should be extended during the length of the pandemic.
"We are literally watching each other get sick every day, and it’s not slowing down. At a minimum, hazard pay should be extended for the entire length of this pandemic," Monica Moody, an Amazon worker at a fulfillment center in Charlotte, said in a statement. “If we are putting our lives at risk to pack and deliver Amazon packages, we deserve to be paid for it."
- Joan Dononvan has been named research director for the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. She will continue in her role as director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project.
- Cynthia Hogan, Apple's vice president for public policy and government affairs, has resigned from the company, Axios reports. Hogan was recently tapped by former vice president Joe Biden for his vice presidential search committee.
Rant and rave
Google finally introduced a way for you to organize those dozens of tabs. You probably still won't read them, as security researcher Runa Sandvik points out:
Can’t wait to organize and color code all those tabs I never read but don’t want to close just yet. https://t.co/Yil8dSq4S6— Runa Sandvik (@runasand) May 13, 2020
- The Open Technology Institute will host an event on the role of technology in pandemic response efforts today at 11:30 a.m.
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