Should You Be Fired for Using the Internet While at Work?

WASHINGTON -- BlackBerry devices. Cell phones. Pagers. Wireless Internet access. Broadband at home.

The growing list of communications technologies that links workers to the workplace 24/7 increasingly is blurring the lines between work and home.

Employees surf the Web at work, checking the weather, making travel plans, and shopping. At home, many send e-mail, continue their work chores on the Internet, and otherwise stay connected with their professional lives.

While employers rarely discourage the extra work done at home, many want employees' attention focused on work while at the office.

In a recent decision, a New York City administrative law judge adds another angle to the debate between employers and employees over personal use of the Internet in the workplace. Ruling in the case of an employee who allegedly used the Internet for personal reasons during work hours, the judge, John B. Spooner, compared Internet use at work to reading a newspaper or making a telephone call. (Go here for more on the increased use of the Internet as a news source.)

Permeable Boundary

"It should be observed," Spooner wrote, "that the Internet has become the modern equivalent of a telephone or a daily newspaper, providing a combination of communication and information that most employees use as frequently in their personal lives as for their work."

Spooner recommended that Toquir Choudhri, a 14-year veteran of the city Department of Education, receive the slightest reprimand for insubordination, even though supervisors wanted him fired for using the Internet for personal matters after he was told not to.

Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet and American Life Project says it "sounds like the judge was recognizing a reality for lots of workers."

Rainie says the "boundary between work and leisure, work and home, is becoming more permeable."

The New York administrative court's rulings serve as recommendations to city department heads who make a final decision. In fiscal year 2005, 99 percent of department heads agreed with the findings and altogether rejected just 16 percent of the recommendations.

Loss of Money?

Despite the mixing of work and personal time, employers fear the loss of salaried time from workers who are not devoting all their workplace time to, well, work.

A recent survey by Salary.com claims employers waste $759 billion per year paying for employees who are online for personal reasons. But Rainie calls this and other reports like it "junk pieces of research" because they don't account for work at home.

And a December 2002 survey conducted by the University of Maryland supports Rainie. The survey finds that workers with Internet access at home and at work used an average of 3.7 hours per week of work time for personal Internet use. But they spend more time, 5.9 hours per week, surfing for work outside office hours. (Go here for some background on the issue.)

The Case

Existing case law, Rainie says, gives employers the right to dictate how their computers are used, but generally such rules "get to different aspects of the same question: How do people spend their time? What are they supposed to be doing when they're on the job? What do they actually do on their job?"

For Choudhri, the veteran of New York City's Department of Education who could possibly still lose his job despite this initial ruling in his favor, the answer to these questions is pretty clear. Much like fellow employees, Choudhri used the Internet during down time.

In one instance, Choudhri was reprimanded for checking the weather on the Internet while eating his lunch, Spooner writes in the decision.

Martin Druyan, Choudhri's lawyer says, "If everyone in the office has no work and everyone is on the Internet, unless management gives them work or forbids them from doing it, then people are going to use the Internet."

Not the End

"This saga is not over," Druyan says. "We're midstream here, something is gonna happen."

Since the March 9 ruling, the embattled employee has spent 30 days suspended without pay. He is back on the payroll, the department says, but he is not at work.

The Department of Education says Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein is expected to make a final decision sometime during the week of April 30.

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