What are Employee Privacy Laws?

Emma G.

In the United States, few employee privacy laws exist to protect the rights of employees in the workplace. Since the employer owns the equipment and the venue, most telephone- and computer-based communication can be monitored. Video monitoring is generally allowed. Most workplace privacy laws are more favorable for the employer than for the employee.

Federal law allows employers to subject workers to random drug screens.
Federal law allows employers to subject workers to random drug screens.

Privacy on the telephone is a common concern for employees. Employee privacy laws do not guarantee that phone calls will not be monitored. Under federal law, any business-related call may be monitored by the employer. Most state laws follow the federal rules. The state of California does have stronger phone privacy laws than other states. In California, both parties must agree to be monitored.

Employee privacy laws extend to any mail the person may receive at their work address.
Employee privacy laws extend to any mail the person may receive at their work address.

In all other states, if while monitoring the call the employer realizes that the call is personal, monitoring must stop immediately. The employer does not have to follow this rule if he or she asks the employees not to make personal calls in the workplace. Since the employer owns the phone lines, he or she can get records of all phone calls made from workplace phones.

Many workplace privacy laws benefit the employer rather than the employee.
Many workplace privacy laws benefit the employer rather than the employee.

Another issue of concern to employees is privacy while using work computers. Since the employer owns the computers and the network, employee privacy laws do little to protect employees while using the computer. Employers are allowed to monitor how often the computer terminal is idle. They can also monitor Internet usage. Union contracts may limit how closely employees can be monitored while using the computer.

Emails sent from company-owned computers and voice mails on company phones are not protected by employee privacy laws. In most cases, employers are allowed to read emails or listen to voice mails without consent from the employee. Court rulings in some states have set a precedent for certain exceptions. If the communication is between the employee and a lawyer or doctor, the communication may be protected by employee privacy laws.

The final employee privacy issue that concerns employees is physical privacy. Federal law allows for random drug testing among employees. It also allows video monitoring in most public places to protect against theft and monitor productivity. Video cameras are not allowed in places where employees need physical privacy, such as in locker rooms and bathrooms.

Bags and jackets may be searched to guard against theft. Desks, work stations, and employee locker rooms may be searched. The exception is that, if an employee is given a key to a desk or a locker, that space cannot be searched without permission.

Any communication with a doctor may be protected under employee privacy laws.
Any communication with a doctor may be protected under employee privacy laws.

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