Do employers have to tell us when they put up surveillance cameras?

Question:

I work in a department store. There are surveillance cameras at the front doors and near the registers and display cases where we sell our most expensive items (like jewelry and watches), in order to deter theft and help catch shoplifters. However, the store has now announced that it will put up surveillance cameras all over the store and in the employee break room and other non-public areas. Our manager said the store is trying to crack down on theft by both employees and customers, and I get it. But this feels really intrusive. We have changing rooms and restrooms; also, we often talk about work problems and let off steam in the break room, which I'd rather our manager not hear. Can they put surveillance cameras wherever they want?

Answer:

There are some limits on workplace surveillance and monitoring, although not as many as you might think. In the public areas of the store, your employer is perfectly within its rights to post surveillance cameras to deter theft. For example, placing cameras behind registers, at entrances and exits, and in hidden corners where shoplifters might remove tags or switch prices, is perfectly legal.

The same is likely true in some areas reserved for employees. For example, it's probably fine for an employer to post cameras in a large open break room or an area where employees clock in and out.

Whether your employer can record sound in these more public employee areas is a trickier legal question. In some states, a conversation can be recorded only with the consent of everyone involved. This is one reason why store surveillance cameras often record video but not audio. In addition, employers are prohibited from eavesdropping on employee conversations about union organizing, the terms and conditions of their jobs, and plans to take action to challenge employer practices or policies. An employer that records employee conversations on these matters could find itself in hot water with the National Labor Relations Board.

Restrooms, locker rooms, and changing areas are a different story. Some states explicitly prohibit employers from filming employees in these private areas, where they might disrobe or attend to personal needs. Even if state law doesn't specifically outlaw or restrict this practice, employees would have a pretty good argument that it violates their right to privacy to be filmed while dressing or using the bathroom. An employer that posts cameras in these private areas has likely crossed the legal line.

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