Faced with a federal lawsuit filed by hourly employees for failure to pay accurate overtime, the Grenada School District, located in north central Mississippi, had to find a better way to keep track of employee hours. The problem surfaced about four years ago when 120 district workers from bus drivers to teacher aides to cafeteria and maintenance employees filed a lawsuit to recover unpaid overtime hours plus damages, attorney fees and court costs. Across the state, other districts faced similar lawsuits. The workers cited the federally mandated Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employers to keep accurate records of hours worked by non-exempt workers and pay them time-and-a-half for any work beyond a 40-hour work week. In wage and hourly cases, the burden is on the employer to prove overtime hours were not worked.
In an effort to keep accurate track of non-exempt employee hours, the Grenada School District installed a biometrics system.
Bo Surrell, business manager, says the district's primary problem was it had many non-exempt employees who worked two jobs, such as teacher aides who left early to drive buses. The district paid the employees full salaries for both jobs but ended up owing money for overtime.
The district was able to settle with a few employees, but ended up paying thousands of dollars in fines and back pay for the remaining staff.
"At that point, we decided we wanted to automate our record keeping. Up until then, it was done by pen and pencil with a sign-in sheet,'' says Surrell.
According to Surrell, the district could have purchased time clocks, but it still would have faced the problem of buddy punching, where staff members could have others punch in or out for them. The district doesn't have any supervisors at night to oversee the workers.
Surrell called around to several companies but wasn't having much luck.
"There weren't many companies willing to work with us because it was difficult to solve our quirky needs,'' he says.
Finally Surrell happened upon Concept Electronics of Baton Rouge, La. The company installed Attendance Enterprise from InfoTronics for the district. The program uses a hand scan system where staffers punch in their employee numbers and place their hand in an electronic device. The device records the time and sends the information to a central computer in the district's main office.
The district purchased about a dozen of the devices, known as a Telepunch, at a total cost of about $24,000. The district also paid an additional $15,000 for the computer data software. It was the first district in the state to install the system.
At first, there were problems the district had to overcome. There were instances when the machine wouldn't read the biometric information. Also, the district had to convince some staff members the machines were reliable and safe to use.
"I did have one person who said they didn't want to use the clock, that it was a mark of Satan,'' says Surrell. "I was going to offer them an alternative ... but they quit."
The district also had to remain flexible for special staff needs. For example, some bus drivers live far from the district, which encompasses a wide, rural area. So the drivers are allowed to take their buses home. They can call into the office to record when they have finished their hours for the day instead of using the Telepunch machine.
Surrell says the system has been running smoothly and the bugs were worked out by a switch in software. Now the central office computer polls the electronic Telepunch machine every hour and records the information and administrators can run a time card report on a worker at any time. In the future, Surrell says he'd like to have the district's teachers use the machines.
"I would recommend it to anyone if they want to automate their system ... and want to be confident of what they are doing and not leave any doubt,'' says Surrell.
Fran Silverman is a contributing editor.