Truck drivers for Seattle sandwich maker Homegrown asked for a raise, then came the cameras

SEATTLE -- Truck driver Trevor Taylor's shift for sandwich maker Homegrown started with an unpleasant surprise last Wednesday. As he got to his truck at 5:30 a.m., Taylor noticed something different about the vehicle: There was a camera facing right at him. A week earlier, the company told the drivers it was installing dashboard cams to watch the road.

Taylor said he was OK with the idea; in the case of an accident, there would be useful footage. What he did not expect were the 4-inch cameras that tracked his eye movements, facial recognition technology and microphones listening in. In addition to feeling watched, he said, he doesn't know where the data is stored and what is done with it.

"We have no control over that data and why it's being used and how it's being used once it's been uploaded to the company's servers," he said.

In early June, Homegrown workers delivered notice that they intend to form a union. A few days later, Seattle City Council members published a letter asking Homegrown CEO Brad Gillis to not interfere with their employees' choice. Gillis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Homegrown is a sustainable sandwich maker based in Seattle with five locations across the city. It has hundreds of employees, according to its LinkedIn profile. Part of its business is wholesale distribution of sandwiches sold under several brands, such as Molly's, to cafes, universities and hospitals.

Drivers asked for better vehicle maintenance -- their complaints vary from broken headlights to brake issues that could make the truck unsafe to drive -- better benefits and higher wages. The lowest-paid workers receive £16 an hour. Workers demanded a wage floor of £20 an hour.

Manya Janowitz, who has been making sandwich deliveries for Homegrown's wholesale division for two years, said she thinks the new surveillance system is part of the company's response to their unionizing effort. "We've been trying to have a conversation with our company for three months about organizing," Janowitz said. "They have not met our demands and instead last week they installed surveillance cameras."

Across the country, employees have been reckoning that workplace surveillance is on the rise, including in the delivery field. In April, a delivery company filed a class-action lawsuit against Amazon for truck driver surveillance.

The delivery company claimed Amazon tracked drivers as they worked, monitoring acceleration and braking and how long a driver was using their phone. The company then would use the data to keep track of drivers' performance and record infractions using a points-based system. Increasingly, employers are able to keep track of their employees' performance through technologies that are advancing faster than privacy law, said Ifeoma Ajunwa, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, in a paper.

"Technological advancements in several fields -- big data analytics, communications capture, mobile device design, DNA testing, and biometrics -- have dramatically expanded capacities for worker surveillance," Ajunwa said. The technology installed in Homegrown's trucks belongs to Toronto-based company Foresight Analytics, the Homegrown drivers said. Its product, Hawk, uses cellular networks to transmit data "on an ongoing basis" to data centers, according to Foresight Analytics' website.

The data then is used to provide a coaching service for drivers about how they can improve and increase road safety.

The Columbian is becoming a rare example of a news organization with local, family ownership. Subscribe today to support local journalism and help us to build a stronger community.Subscribe Today

Foresight Analytics did not respond to requests for comment. With the new cameras, Homegrown drivers feel surveilled, Taylor said.

"I feel targeted," he said. "I feel like this kind of micromanaging is demoralizing, it's humiliating and it creates a toxic workplace environment." Company representatives told drivers that cameras would reduce insurance costs, Taylor said. But at the same time, not every commercial vehicle operated by Homegrown has the same monitoring technology.

Other fleets, such as catering trucks, do not have the Hawk installed. The workers will begin a one-day strike Wednesday to protest the use of cameras. If the company does not respond, Taylor said he might reconsider working for Homegrown.

He said about 20 drivers work there. "One of the things that attracted me to this company is that they trusted their drivers as experts in their jobs," said Taylor, who has been driving for Homegrown for three years. "It's overwhelming." Homegrown drivers are on the road seven to 10 hours every day delivering sandwiches to universities and cafes throughout the Seattle area, Janowitz said, so the cameras feel "invasive and creepy."

"It feels incredibly invasive being in a van for eight hours knowing your eye movements are being tracked," said Janowitz. "I know how to do my job, and I do my job well."