Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.
-Thomas Edison (Inventor)
As New Jersey and New York release their plans to re-open, the reality is that much of society will not exactly be going back to “normal.” Much of the re-opening rests on the public following social distancing, despite more business and entities being open again. The unintended consequences of “the new normal” may be a surge of new technology to patrol or monitor behavior. Parents and students may have already experienced this type of monitoring if they have taken an exam with the computer camera recording the student’s work as they complete their assessment. This pandemic presents an interesting opportunity for many technology companies. As employees transition back into the workplace, monitoring policies or new “coronavirus technologies” may await them. But an unintended positive consequence of these new policies and technologies may be no more, “he said, she said.”
Apart from contact tracing, new technology is emerging to determine if people are keeping social distance while on the job. Every workplace, depending on the jobs it requires, will most likely utilize different technologies to best fit its needs. For example, a tool called Proximity Trace, is now being tested on construction sites in New Jersey. One of the new “coronavirus technologies” are monitoring bracelets. This new workplace accessory would vibrate if workers get too close to one another and violate the social distancing restrictions (staying 6 feet apart). Tracking bracelets may also provide notifications to one’s employer or supervisors if social distancing restrictions are broken, creating an entirely new set of metadata on workers. If employers do not opt for these new bracelets, there are other options such as camera monitoring. Camera monitoring may range from placing cameras around the office to more advanced camera systems that will be able to set off alarms if employees break social distancing protocol.
Despite privacy concerns and the details of where these cameras can be placed (and where they can’t, like in bathrooms), this new coronavirus technology may bring legitimacy to many employees’ sexual harassment claims against him supervisors and co-employees. In bringing a sexual harassment claim, one of the hardest obstacles a victim must overcome is convincing a judge, a jury, or an arbitrator, that the sexual harassment actually happened. Often, the person bringing the claim must rely only on their own word, with no eyewitness or documents showing a harasser’s misconduct. But now, with more monitoring technology to patrol social distancing, the camera or bracelet information can catch possible sexual harassment in the workplace, as well. Through new protocol and coronavirus technology, harassment victims could have more evidence to prove their claims. There will be less of a “He said. She said,” exchange, and instead data or footage can be presented to prove or disprove a person’s case. The benefit to employers is that it can build – and ensure – a safe workplace.
In addition to more evidence in a plaintiff’s case, this technology may serve as a deterrent to all sexual harassment behaviors. With strict social distancing requirements, not only will physical harassment be curbed, but verbal as well. That could “push” harassing behavior to text messaging and email, which can be preserved. The embarrassment a harasser could face from a bracelet or camera alarm going off may bring inappropriate behavior into the light, in a form of public shaming. Behaviors once unnoticed and in the shadows, now will be more scrutinized which on one hand may take some getting used to, but ultimately provides everyone with more respect regarding their personal space.
This new tracking data, even at first overwhelming, may provide many with a safer working environment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as of 2019, reported that it received 23,532 cases alleging sexual discrimination or harassment. At the local level, a recent report entitled “Preventing and Eliminating Sexual Harassment in New Jersey,” reports many shortcomings of NJ’s Law Against Discrimination in preventing sexual based workplace harassment. Even though NJ legislators are currently amending NJLAD, coronavirus technology may be an unexpected tool in many plaintiffs’ cases that provides them with the justice they are seeking and may ultimately curb unwanted attention or touching in the workplace.
Aleksandra Syniec, who wrote this article, is a second-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law. She is also knowledgeable in landlord-tenant law and the information technology.