A U.S. coal mining company violated an employee’s religious beliefs by requiring him to clock into and out of work via a biometric hand scanner, a federal appeals court has ruled. The decision could mean more work for human resources departments in crafting other biometric authentication programs but so far appears unlikely to stall the expansion of similar systems.
Instead of ‘marking’ a beast as the plaintiff expressed, these systems actually ‘protect’ a beast (e.g. the employee) by accurately reporting time and preventing ghost clock-ins and clock-outs
Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy Inc. should have accommodated the religious beliefs of Beverly Butcher, a 37-year-old evangelical Christian who worked in West Virginia, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Like other workers at the location, Butcher was told to place his right hand on the scanner to verify attendance and work hours, a system that also assigned personal numbers to employees. To Butcher, the biometric authentication represented the “Mark of the Beast” found in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations.
Similar concerns about biometric technology – or other identification technologies – are not uncommon though considered unfounded in mainstream circles.
Butcher contacted the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed suit against the company. Butcher retired in 2012 rather than take part in the company’s biometric authentication, according to court documents. The ruling awards Butcher nearly $440,000 in lost wages and benefits.
Even though the court issued a permanent injunction against Consol to refrain from future violations of employee religious concerns, the ruling likely will have no major impact on other companies’ use of biometric authentication technologies, said Jancie Kephart, founding partner at Identity Strategy Partners, a consultancy based in the Washington, D.C. area. “This case is too far afield from mainstream issues, including those pertaining to privacy, which this case does not even touch,” she said. “It will rather result in some work for corporate human resource teams who will need to write some new policies for current and prospective employees.”
Better biometric authentication policies
In the ruling’s wake, corporate human resource teams … will need to write some new policies for current and prospective employees.
Those policies should include making it clear that use of hand scanners and other such devices to monitor work attendance is voluntary, and that such biometric authentication technologies “are in place to support accurate accounting, prevent errors and [prevent] ghost and incorrect employee clock-ins and –clock-outs,” she said. “In other words, instead of ‘marking’ a beast as Mr. Butcher expressed, these systems ‘protect’ a beast (e.g. the employee). If an employee objects, he may do so.”
Properly installed systems, she said, do not retain fingerprint or biometric images – that is, the “mark” – but only mathematical algorithms used for matching against live candidates, she said.