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A swipe in time saves nine: testing an automated timecard system in Berkeley, California.

A pilot program for automating timecards suggests big rewards for citywide implementation and identifies personnel issues that must be addressed.

Small red and black boxes on the lobby walls of the civic center building in Berkeley, California, were the subject of lively speculation. The boxes, each with a number pad, slot and small digital screen, do not open doors to private offices, nor are they automatic teller machines (ATMs), although the technology is similar. They are clock boxes that replace most paperwork required to issue paychecks to city employees.

The automated timecard system eliminates the printing, distribution, completion, authorization and collection of individual timecards. It reduces the manual data entry of hours worked and eliminates the need for timecard filing, storage and purchase. Only back-up documents recording "exception hours," such as leave or overtime authorizations, need to be filed. The technology eliminates labor intensive manual tasks, thus increasing productivity, and significantly reduces the amount of paper used.

The Technology: Swipecards

The city auditor's office created a four-department pilot project to test this new automated timekeeping technology. Three of the departments involved in the test employ office workers in Berkeley's civic center building. The fourth department, the city's refuse division, located about three miles from the civic center, has both office and manual workers. The 135 employees were issued plastic cards with a personal identification number (PIN), similar to ATM cards. When the card is swiped through a clock box, the computer records the arrival or departure time. This electronic input replaces manual record keeping of employee work hours.

The clock boxes, which cumulate hours swiped in, are connected to a dedicated computer server that integrates the hours swiped in with exception hours entered at departmental personal computers. Exception hours are defined as hours when employees are not on site to swipe their cards. Authorized staff in departments enter overtime hours, off-site paid time, sick leave and vacations and make corrections for missed swipes or for overtime that was not authorized.

Hours are accumulated in the system during the two-week pay period. At the end of the pay period, payroll clerks check the hours for completeness. Once the review is completed, supervisors sign off electronically, and the data are downloaded into the payroll system. The payroll software computes the payroll, produces edit reports for a final accuracy review, and prints paychecks and reports. Employees are paid based on the total number of swiped and exception hours.

The clock boxes, in addition to scanning the timecards, can keep employees abreast of their records. On the digital screen, users can view 1) total hours accumulated in a current pay period, 2) the time and date of the last swipe, 3) information from the last 21 swipes, 4) the schedule for the next three days and 5) any error messages. Information giving exact time, number and type of labor hours can be printed out at the end of the pay period for employees. Prior pay periods are archived by the system. The system also maintains individual schedules and union contractual provisions.

System administrators can make changes to schedules, unit information modifications and other edits, enabling staff scheduling to be done electronically. Data can be sorted in many ways: by department, division, representational unit, who is on vacation, overtime hours worked by day and by week, and how many people were tardy. Reports can be printed as needed.

Although the system brought about several changes, basic policy concerning the way time and attendance are managed remained the same. For instance, some departments require staff to sign in and out for lunch, others do not. Some departments issue progressive (first oral and then written) "tardy" warnings, some do not. Some track Monday and Friday absences, others do not. These practices continued under the pilot timekeeping system.

Pilot Projects Citywide Results

The benefits witnessed during the pilot program suggest big rewards for citywide implementation. The system decreased hours spent preparing time and attendance records for payroll purposes, thus increasing time available for other tasks. Fewer computer entry errors were encountered. Employees' control over hours entered into the system increased, and pay is based on actual hours on the job. Productivity increased because timecards did not have to be distributed, filled out, signed, collected, tracked and filed.

The city auditor's office estimates time saving citywide valued at more than $400,000, based on an average of 15 minutes of labor per timecard for 100,000 timecards per year at an average cost of $17 per hour. Some dollar savings will accrue because timecard stock will not have to be purchased and timecard filing space will be reduced.

These savings far exceed estimated costs for going citywide with the automated timecard system. The hardware and software for a citywide installation would cost an estimated $165,000, with a capacity for up to 5,000 employees using the system. The annual maintenance fee is estimated to be $18,500. The plastic cards cost $2.50 each. Initially there also would be a cost connected with training payroll clerks and supervisors to use the system.

Technical and Personnel Hurdles

While the pilot program yielded many benefits, these rewards were not reaped without hurdles to overcome. First, to find a vendor who met the city's specifications required a very thorough screening process. The City of Berkeley has a large local area network (LAN), and officials wanted the automated timecard system to be part of the LAN. Although various vendors responded affirmatively to this request-for-proposal requirement, only one local company could provide a networked system. Even this system required improvements during the test period. Second, configuration of the hardware and integration of the software with the city's systems required careful vigilance by the city's information systems' staff. It was evident that vendors who promised everything with optimistic timelines would necessitate carefully written contracts and monitoring to keep them to their agreements.

In addition, several internal issues arose during the pilot project. Prior to the automated timecard system pilot trial, all employees--both those covered and exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)--filled out paper timecards. The city attorney concluded that the pilot initiated a mechanical change only and, therefore, was not subject to "meet and confer" requirements. The city attorney further advised caution to protect exempt employees' status. As a result, exempt employees only swipe their timecards on arrival. Their 40 hours per week (with adjustments for paid leave, etc.) are automatically transmitted into the payroll system.

The city attorney also advised that the departments should not use the new technology for disciplinary purposes: a department that was not adequately supervising its employees' time and attendance before the pilot should not use the new computerized information as a substitute for supervision. Any new disciplinary actions taken for time and attendance infractions that were not taken before the pilot had begun could trigger a "material change in working conditions" and require meeting and conferring. The three unions representing employees in the four departments agreed to the pilot project. They advised, however, that they thought citywide application would be subject to meet-and-confer provisions.

Employee attitudes toward the pilot project also needed to be addressed. Some employees have spoken out and written letters arguing against the project, finding the use of "time clocks" offensive and not appropriate to a professional environment. Some employees worry about practical difficulties when attending meetings at off-site locations and at various times and how they would record their time. These employees were encouraged to determine how such situations were handled under the previous system and to establish similar procedures. The most frequently voiced concern, however, is that "big brother is watching you." Employees fear that supervisors will use the system in a punitive way. They are suspicious of the system and think that it will be used for control purposes.

These employee concerns were addressed throughout the implementation process. It was made clear to everyone participating in the pilot that the primary purpose was productivity enhancement. Employees were assured that supervisors would not use the computerized timekeeping system to penalize people if time and attendance infractions were not disciplined previously.

Training was key to successful acceptance of the system. A plan was developed for thorough training of supervisors, payroll staff and employees in the use of the system. Concise, clear explanatory materials were distributed. Explanations were placed above the clock boxes to help employees in case they forgot what a particular function key did.

It took about six months to eliminate various software and hardware bugs and to persuade some payroll staff to give up paper timecards. Employees wary of the new system came around due to the system's flexibility and ease of use.

Swiping into the Future

The pilot phase has been over for about one year. The four departments are using the system successfully, and most of the people using it like it. Currently, an estimated 2,000 hours per year spread among 135 employees, which in the past was spent handling timecards, is available for other tasks.

In the final evaluation of the pilot, the city auditor recommended continued use of the system and phasing it in in a few departments at a time rather than attempting citywide implementation. Since the city is currently in a major payroll system conversion process, however, further implementation is on hold until that project is completed.

The introduction of any change is stressful. How easily change is accepted depends on the groundwork done by the people involved. City staff put a lot of time in planning, training and personal attention to reduce employees' level of stress, and they listened carefully to complaints. Some employees resisted a system that they assumed was a return to old fashioned time clocks. Their concerns were lessened when they learned that the system kept time and attendance records reliably and produced paychecks in a technologically advanced way. Assuring people that the new system would not be used for disciplinary purposes also helped.

At the completion of the test period, a survey of users was done. Most users agreed that the swipecard system allows for better use of staff time, that the additional features like staff scheduling and report capabilities are valuable, and that time and attendance information is more reliable under this system.

The decision to start with a pilot project was a wise one. It allowed staff to concentrate on a manageable group, identify problems specific to particular operations, and provide personal assistance and education. Officials for the City of Berkeley found two keys to the program's success: 1) the lead person on the project was enthusiastic, energetic and dogged and 2) top management was supportive. With these leadership components and with the well-planned implementation process, most, albeit not all, users came around and now think that the swipecard system is simpler than the old system. Supervisors and payroll support staff, once they got over their distaste for yet another computerized system, found it more efficient than the paper timecard system.

Withdrawal and deposit slips at banks may be history in the not-too-distant future. Timecards, timesheets and other paper attendance documents may follow suit. The future appears to belong to a box with a key pad, slot and digital screen activated by a card with personal identification number. A lot of trees, in addition to staff time, can be saved by these electronic marvels.

ANNA RABKIN, the elected city auditor for the City of Berkeley, California, is a member of the GFOA and the National Association of Local Government Auditors. She is also a member of the City of Berkeley Continuous Service Improvement (CSI) committee. One of the goals of the CSI is to improve work processes.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Government Finance Officers Association
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Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rabkin, Anna
Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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