What Is an "Expectation of Privacy"? Postal Vehicle Cameras Exposed!
Being Candid About Cameras
A recent perusal of letter carrier Facebook group pages reveals a lot of nervous chatter about vehicle cameras, a phenomenon backed up by photographic evidence. The shots of the snooping gadgets being deployed are not fuzzy or overexposed as other mythological beasts, such as those blurry mid-sixties snapshots of Bigfoot or Nessy. No, they are indisputably clear, hanging in plain sight on Long Life Vehicle (LLV) side view mirrors, and also where the rear view mirror would be, if you actually needed one because you had a back window.
Mail men and mail ladies across the country are worried about this disturbing development, of course, concerned that they are going to be caught on candid camera picking their nose or scratching some sensitive spot, shucking a layer on a fickle February day, or clearing a sweat wedgie on a hot August afternoon.
Therefore, as much as I would love to report to the contrary, the rumors are more than unjustified paranoia. Vehicle cameras are being tested by the Postal service, and it only remains to be seen when and to what extent they will be installed, and whether and on what grounds the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) Union will be able to fight them. The impending implementation also begs the question of whether or not this unwanted intrusion constitutes an invasion of privacy. A more fundamental query yet is if an expectation privacy even exists for a letter carrier inside a postal-owned vehicle.
Double Your Pleasure - Twin Camera Initiatives
It would be stimulating, saucy, and satisfying to report a George Noorey after dark conspiracy on the issue of postal vehicle cameras. I would love to unveil secret holes being drilled in the roofs of LLVs, used by Postal Inspectors to implant hidden lenses that take Peeping Tom snapshots of letter carriers, captured in revealing poses. Unfortunately for the scoop factor of my article, however, it seems like the USPS made its intentions known ahead of time, for once. In the August, 2019 edition of the Postal Record, Director of City Delivery Christopher Jackson reported that the Postal Service had notified the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) of its intent to test the use of video cameras in two different initiatives, which are as follows:
As per Mr. Jackson in the Postal Record:
"The first test initiative will evaluate the feasibility of using video technology to verify data collected relating to city carrier street activities. This test uses 360-degree external cameras, internal cameras and GPS technology to validate data collected by the MDD. The video testing lasted for approximately 30 days in two USPS selected test sites. USPS is gathering results from the testing to determine whether the video obtained can be applied to verify letter carrier street activity. (italics mine) "
Sounds rather ominous, doesn't it? I don't think the portion I italicized about "verify letter carrier street activity" can be interpreted in any way other than that the Postal Service will be using the camera to spy on you. Yes they are substituting the friendly word verify for the much more ominous, intrusive, Big-brotherish monitor, as if to say that gosh darn Mel is doing such a good job but let's just verify it so we can give him an award, or at least a pat on the back.
But make no mistake that these cameras will be used to monitor, to make sure you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, working, not frittering away your undertime talking, playing Words With Friends, or writing subversive articles on your phone. Also, note how the cameras will be used to validate data collected by the MDD scanner. This means that if your butt ain´t in the same place as the scanner you are going to have to answer the question of - why did you leave the scanner where it is supposed to be while you sashayed off to somewhere you´re not supposed to be?
The second USPS initiative sounds a little less threatening than the first, but don´t be fooled. Per the Postal Record, this one:
"... is designed to test the feasibility of using video and GPS technology to reduce vehicle collisions and to assist in identifying driver risks and causes of vehicle damage. The video recorder will capture the location, speed and direction of the delivery vehicle in the event of a collision, or if unusual driving activities are detected."
While these ¨collision¨ cameras could also be potentially damaging to the letter carrier, I can see how they could be used for good instead of evil. As a mailman who has been involved in a he-said/she-said dispute with a customer over allegedly striking a vehicle, it would have been sweet vindication to have photographic evidence to clear me from that customer with glowing dollar signs in the eyeballs. Then again, I am sure that same "vehicle collision" camera could also be used to watch you chillin´ on the back bumper because you're trying to avoid the camera pointed at the driver's seat.
Can They Do That?
For me, the camera fuss started one morning a few weeks ago, when I was kickin it in the swing room prior to clocking in. One among our regular swing room roundtable members mentioned having seen a story about the postal vehicle cameras, perhaps the same article I quoted above. In response, another letter carrier in the back of the room immediately took umbrage.
¨They can´t do that!¨ he shouted.
My immediate reaction was to roll my eyes, my morning zen having been ruptured by what I considered an ill-considered, knee jerk response.
¨I think they can do that,¨ I answered.
¨What do you mean? That´s an invasion of privacy!¨
¨These are postal vehicles,¨ I said, ¨not your personal vehicle. There´s no expectation of privacy.¨
In retrospect, I wonder if maybe my self assured comeback to my coworker´s unfounded angst was equally knee jerk. As I thought about and researched the topic, I began to ask whether the Postal Service really can do that - do they have the legal right to install these invasive ¨verification¨ devices, or does a theoretical ¨expectation of privacy¨ prevent them from doing so? Furthermore, even if the law recognizes no expectation of privacy in these circumstances, are there other factors that may impede the mail delivery behemoth from snooping in on that snug little driving compartment, the safe place where you used to hide from management for the six to seven hours it takes to deliver your route?
How Profound Can They Probe?
First of all, what is an expectation of privacy and do you even have one at work at all, especially within the friendly confines of your postal vehicle? There is no doubt that whether you own or rent, the law protects you from being filmed without your consent in the sanctity of your own home. But what about the workplace? Is there anything that shields you from prying eyes while on or in the property of the business or organization that employs you, particularly in the vehicle you drive?
If you have worked at the post office long enough you should know you are occasionally being watched by Postal Inspectors, ensconced in their rubber room in the rafters, that secret viewing gallery shielded by mirrors that you cannot see past, but the prying eyes on the other side can definitely watch you from. Postal employees seem to accept the presence of these wildlife blinds without complaint, even though they were put in place to make sure the animals in the zoo behave themselves. In fact, like the Gombe chimpanzees being studied by Jane Goodall for decades on end, after working at a Post Office for decades on end a postal employee tends to forget the spy booths are even there.
But to letter carriers, the interior of a postal vehicle feels like a more intimate, private locale than the workroom floor, and the mailman or lady assigned to the particular vehicle of a particular route for an extended period of time tends to take a proprietary shine to it. We get angered when another carrier leaves trash on the floor, rubber bands hanging from the turn signal, or even when some unwashed brute leaves their foul, lingering body odor behind in ¨our¨ vehicle. The interior of our postal buggy is a cozy home away from home, feathered to our liking, and we resent any intrusion upon it.
The post office can certainly monitor the source and duration of calls made on its land line phones, but not record them. It can keep track of internet activity on its network to check if you are browsing for legitimate work purposes or just goofing off, but it cannot read the content of your personal emails. Like other employers, the postal service can also search your locker, the law recognizing that workplace equipment belongs to the employer. As such, outside of the aforementioned protected locales, no expectation of privacy exists at work.
The Postal Service, along with other employers, also has a right to use video cameras, as long as a legitimate business reason exists for them, such as monitoring for theft or, I suppose, checking that letter carriers are driving safely. In some cases, the law actually encourages vehicle cameras. For instance, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), urges employers to have a program in place that discourages distracted driving. But workplace cameras cannot be used to monitor Union activity, or to intimidate employees from joining a Union. In fact, because of Federal wiretapping laws, audio on such cameras is for the most part avoided. Furthermore, employees must be informed that the cameras are in use, and video surveillance cannot single out a particular employee or group of employees. It must be used equally across the board, without discrimination.
The privacy expectation, or lack thereof, that is recognized in the employer´s building, generally extends to the vehicle fleet. As long as employees are aware the filming is occurring, there is no invasion of privacy involved with putting cameras in the carpool.
One potential avenue of relief from prying eyes is The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This legislation dictates that video surveillance cannot be used by Unionized organizations, without first bargaining with its employees. ¨I´m safe!¨ you exclaim from your hidden haven, the crusty cushions of your fossilized LLV. ¨I belong to the NALC, so they have to talk it over with me first!¨
Don´t start your victory twerks just yet. The NLRA does not apply to the employees of state, local, or federal government, and I think that includes you.
Unfortunately, my dear fellow mailmen and mail ladies of America, there does not seem to be a lot of hope in pausing the Postal Peeping Toms from perusing your perch.
Are You Hip on HIPAA?
In doing my due diligence for this article, I attempted to poll NALC contract experts in Facebook land on the subject of vehicle cameras, to see if there is any language in the contract that the Union can use to fight their installation. I did not get as much feedback as I would have liked, either because non-buoyant Mel does not float to the top of people´s Facebook feeds, because nobody is really sure, or because, like when you ask your Mom if you can eat cookies before dinner, smart people just assume you know the answer is ¨NO," so let´s not be stupid about it.
I am grateful for the scattered responses I did receive. These comments provide encouragement that the Union is going to fight the implementation of the cameras, a topic discussed at a recent NALC rap session. One speculated path of resistance proposed at this meeting of the minds revolved around the provisions of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), a 1996 law that safeguards medical information.
Specifically, the issue of prescriptions was discussed at said rap session. Postal employees who are required to take medications at certain times could have their privacy violated by the roving eye in the sky, peeking down to read their prescription labels. Since the HIPAA privacy rule requires the protection of personal health information, letter carriers popping their pills at the appropriate times could have their legal rights violated.
Is this a reach? Who knows - the Facebook jury seemed hung. But on a non-HIPAA but very relevant note, I ask the question of who is going to be monitoring the monitors? WIll the vehicle cameras turn into some postal pervie´s private peep show? Will male managers be snooping in regularly on female letter carriers they ¨deem desirable,¨ or will there be nice watchdogs up in snoop central that will keep the slobbering dogs locked in the kennel? This eventuality is an aspect of the camera implementation the Union should certainly negotiate, because the seeds of abuse could be sowed in very fertile soil here.
Let Your LLV Turn Into a Pumpkin, It´s Not Your Problem
In the interest of moving the mail, then returning back before the clock strikes the dreaded witching hour of 5 or 6 PM, letter carriers have been known to shave a 10 minute break here or there. That´s okay, you say, I´ll make it up later, I´ll get it back when the mail is light tomorrow. It all evens out in the end. Of course, I am speaking from hearsay and speculation, I would never engage in or encourage this practice myself, wink wink.
But if Big Brother´s eye is going to be watching you in the shady interior compartment of your vehicle from now on, preventing you from taking those extra five minute ¨hydration breaks¨ along your route on light days, if no consideration is going to be given to your privacy, then it is time to stop being considerate toward the numbers your supervisor wants to make. If a ten minute break is going to push you beyond your expected return time, text on your scanner that you are not going to make the required time, then let management deal with it, which is their job.
Ninety percent of carriers are honest, and they give away a lot more time than they take back. But if letter carriers cannot work with management on the honor system because we have the prying eyes in the sky bearing down on us - if, heretofore, our every move is going to be monitored, then it is time to start doing everything by the book. If postal management has a right to film you, you also have a right to two ten minute breaks and a half hour lunch every day, and you should take them, every day. Not a minute over, not a minute less, even if it means the wicked stepmother might yell at you when you get back from the ball late.
Although the Union may grieve the vehicle cameras based on several legitimate sounding arguments, I suspect that we are stuck with them. The USPS typically sneaks in new programs like this rapidly and under cover of night, doing an end run around the bargaining process, presenting the Union with a fait accompli after the damage is already done. The Postal Service´s strategy is to implement a business practice unilaterally, then keep it in place until the arbitrators sort it out, in this case effectively saying Hey, the cameras are already up and running boys and girls, can't take ´em down now. They have gotten away with it in the past, and I suspect they will get away with it again.
But the honest men and women among us need not fret. Just as when management started tracking our movements via scanner GPS, letter carriers that give an honest day´s work in exchange for an honest day´s pay have nothing to fear. The cameras may indict people doing something improper, illegal, or irregular, and frankly they deserve it if they do, but the cameras can also vindicate the falsely accused.
Postal Vehicle cameras are a double-edged sword. Wise letter carriers will learn to accommodate themselves to being spied upon, just as we have adapted to every other knee-jerk, half-baked, hare-brained scheme previously foisted upon us.