If you work in a retail establishment, you might be used to security video cameras. Many stores film customers when they enter or stand near the register, to protect employees and deter theft. But what about employers that film their own employees, either to make sure they are being productive or to find out whether they are stealing from the company, using drugs, or engaging in other illegal activities? Can an employer film employees while they are changing clothes or using the restroom?
Employee rights in this situation depend on state law and on what the cameras are filming.
Most states have passed laws to protect individual privacy rights. Some of these laws are intended to protect consumers. For example, there are legal limits on what health care providers may do with our medical histories, how companies may use our personal information, and so on.
Some states have laws that specifically address privacy in the workplace. For example, California makes it a crime to install a one-way or surveillance mirror in a locker or fitting room, bathroom, or shower area. (These mirrors look like a mirror on one side, but can be seen through from the other side.) Some states prohibit employers from using surveillance equipment or hidden cameras in certain areas, like restrooms or changing rooms.
To find out what your state prohibits and allows, contact your state department of labor.
Even if your state doesn't protect employee privacy, employers may not film or tape certain types of activities. For example, an employer may not conduct surveillance on union meetings or organizing efforts.
When it comes to private activities, such as changing clothes or using the bathroom, employers are also limited. If there's no state law prohibiting employers from conducting surveillance at work, courts usually decide workplace privacy cases by weighing two interests: the employee's reasonable expectation of privacy, on the one hand, and the employer's need to conduct surveillance, on the other. An employee who is undressing or using the restroom has a strong expectation of privacy, and one that any court would find quite reasonable. An employer who filmed in these locations would be facing an uphill courtroom battle. The employer would have to show a very strong need to conduct such intrusive surveillance in order to defeat an invasion of privacy claim.
If you have been filmed or put under surveillance at work, you may want to consult with an employment attorney. Privacy laws vary from state to state, and they are evolving over time. An experienced lawyer can help you figure out whether your legal rights were violated -- and if so, what you can do about it.