Keeping Watch

Biometric technology eases attendance reporting costs for government facilities

In an era of declining tax revenues, how can government bodies wring every cent of efficiency out of their tightening budgets? With biometric technology, payroll administrators can eliminate the headaches and costs of accurately tracking employee time and attendance. That's because biometric terminals verify people, not cards or tokens. The difference in the bottom line is often surprising.

While private sector job figures are on the decline, the opposite is happening with government employees. Federal, state and local governments are hiring new workers at the fastest pace in six years, helping to offset private industry job losses.

However, while more private sector employers are deploying new computer-based time-and-attendance systems with biometric front-ends, many government offices use time-and-attendance systems that were created a half century ago.

An Outdated, Costly System

Many government employees still depend on manual calculation of paper sign-in sheets with all their associated costs and inaccuracies. Others collect data with outmoded electrical-mechanical time recorders and time cards but still rely on the manual calculations of payroll figures. However, the costs of these older systems and the inaccuracies they cause are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating budget havoc. The budget buster is buddy-punching—when one employee punches in for another. On average, 19 percent of employees admit they have buddy punched at least once in the past year and 74 percent of all companies report that they have experienced a loss from buddy punching. It's bad enough that the company misses out on the expected labor of the missing employee, but according to the American Payroll Association, this practice also costs companies between 5 to 7 percent in payroll costs.

The Shape of Things to Come

Thus, wouldn't it be nice to verify employees' identities in less than one second, based on the size and shape of their hands? Many government entities use this technology, from larger employers, such as the city of Buffalo, N.Y., the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Los Angles Unified School District and the city of Houston, to smaller bodies, such as the towns of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., and Prairie Village, Kan., and the Oxford Community Schools in Michigan.

Indeed, more than 250,000 biometric hand readers have been installed in all types of businesses and agencies in more than 80 countries. On any normal workday, more than 6 million people throughout the world clock into work with a Schlage HandPunch, saving their employers millions of dollars.

For instance, Chicago expedited the conversion of the former card-based time-and-attendance system to one deploying the biometric hand readers. Approximately 830 HandPunch terminals with external bar code scanners will be used by more than 40,000 streets and sanitation, water, aviation, library, and parks and recreation employees.

The city of New York's CityTime project is one of the largest single applications of biometric terminals used for time-and-attendance recording. CityTime is a city-wide automated timekeeping system for all New York mayoral agencies that will ultimately lead to the deployment of thousands of HandPunch terminals being used by more than 300,000 employees. The rollout began years ago with the New York Law Department being among the initial users.

"The products are very solid," said Mal Higgins, director of administration at the Law Department. "With our old system of sign-in books, it was difficult to verify who was working and when. Using this system, the hand geometry readers do the work for us. Plus, there are no more administration costs for replacing lost or stolen cards.

"Initially, we got the machines to monitor time and attendance. Then, we realized we also could use them to control building access. They have allowed our facilities to become much more secure than ever before. Access cards can be passed around and handed off to others, but with this system, only the authorized person can enter the facility."

Across the river, the city of Hoboken, N.J., is following in the footsteps of its larger neighbor. Its hand geometry biometric system has already been used by its police department for three years and by the parking utility for more than a year.

"We are working hard to ensure that the hand scanner is an effective tool used by the city of Hoboken to maintain the daily records of public employees," said Hoboken Mayor David Roberts. "It is another way we are working to modernize the management of the city's work force."

However, biometric-based time-and-attendance gathering is not limited to only larger government entities. The city of Tahlequah, Okla., uses 11 HandPunch terminals to track and manage the city's 129 employees. Eight of the hand geometry terminals reside on the city's network while three remote locations use the dialup mode to transfer time-and-attendance data from the HandPunch time clocks directly to human resources.

"Having the HandPunch terminals working in tandem with our time-and-attendance software has made this aspect of my job much easier and less time consuming," said Sue Stacy, Tahlequah's human resources director. "The system calculates everything, including hours, sick leave and vacation. It provides better management and tracking of our employees. If a department head can't find an employee, they simply call me and I let them know which clock the employee most recently used."

Such systems are not limited to government bodies in the United States. At the Ministries of Justice and Information, along with the Beirut Judicial Court in Lebanon, employees clock in with biometric terminals. So do workers at the Defense Ministry and Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in the United Arab Emirates. In the Ministry of Defense in Singapore, as well as at the VAT Department, you will see HandPunch terminals.

Biometrics Versus Manual

Because every person's hand, fingerprint, eye and face is unique, a biometric time clock provides a quick, accurate and reliable way to record punches for each employee. Using scheduling restrictions, unauthorized early-in punches and late-out punches are eliminated. That's why so many government bodies now employ biometric time-and-attendance solutions. After all, it is impossible to fake another's hand with one's own, and there are no tickets or badges to print, distribute or lose.

There also are no paper trails to maintain. In fact, for those government agencies leading the charge to "green," a computer- based time-and-attendance system with a biometric front end provides a paperless solution.

Best of all, the hardware is typically less than 10 percent of the overall cost for a time-and-attendance system. As a result, biometric readers can be affordably placed in multiple locations.

For these organizations, biometrics ensure employees earn a day's pay only when they are present to do a day's work. However, a biometric reader is more than a simple time clock. It transmits the employee's in and out transactions to the entity's time/attendance/payroll software. Multiple units can be networked into a central time-and-attendance record keeping system. Interface software can be tailored to meet multiple record keeping needs, including programmable data management keys that collect specific data when employees' hands are verified.

Why Hand Readers?

Hand geometry readers continue to be the dominant biometric technology for access control and time-and-attendance applications. There are many reasons people frequently choose hand geometry readers, including low cost of implementation, easy installation, low-light performance, a problem with bar codes and even manual timekeeping. Since verification takes only a second, they handle large user populations easily and offer a low false accept and reject rate.

For time/attendance/payroll use, employees use the keypad—or a bar coded, proximity or smart card—to enter their ID number and then place their right hand in the hand reader. The readers identify users by the shape and size of their hands by analyzing more than 90 separate measurements of length, width, thickness and surface area. The image of their hand is compared to the template stored in the system's memory. If the image matches the template, the employee's identity is verified. Total time required for verification is less than one second. Because every person's hand is unique, the hand reader provides a quick, accurate and reliable way to record in and out punches for each employee.

Systems can be as simple as a single clock, or multiple units can be connected at a variety of sites via RS- 485 wiring, optional Ethernet or dial-up modems. Using biometric hand readers, supervisors can override user restrictions and input missed punches, planned vacations, sick time and other information. This password-protected mode lessens the need for computer edits while audit trails for use of those functions ensures security. Bell schedules can be programmed to signal shift starts, stops and breaks.

Terminals can be programmed to meet multiple data collection and management needs, allowing administrators to send messages to employees, which can be viewed when they punch in. Lastly, hand geometry technology is so accurate and dependable that it also is used for security access at nuclear plants, in government agencies, for the military and at leading airports, such as San Francisco International.

Privacy Issues are Eliminated

Biometric readings are private. They do not identify; they authenticate. When considering the privacy concerns associated with biometrics, an important distinction must be made between identification, which is a one-to-many match, and authentication, which is a one-to- one match.

A system designed to identify a person compares a biometric presented by a person against all biometric samples stored in the database. The system identifies the person if the presented biometric matches one of the many samples on file. This is called a one-to-many match. This is the type of system used by the police to identify criminals and by governments for benefit programs and registration systems.

The authentication process used in time and attendance, however, is very different, involving a one-to-one search. The live biometric presented by the user is compared to a stored sample, and the match is confirmed. The user's hand geometry or fingerprint is not stored in a database or on an ID card. Instead, an algorithm is created with points measured on the finger or hand. The resulting template is all that is stored.

When the user presents an ID card or enters an assigned PIN, only the template is transmitted. When the employee presents his or her hand or finger, the reader runs the authentication process to determine if the template that is stored matches the biometric being presented. If there is a match, the person is authenticated.

Whether the organization has 50 employees or thousands, biometric-based time-and-attendance terminals will provide more accurate payrolls and reduce labor costs. They also will reduce operating costs and increase employee convenience by eliminating the need for badges, all of which makes this growing trend a quick way to enhance the bottom line.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Security Today.

  • Environmental Protection
  • Occupational Health & Safety
  • Infrastructure Solutions Group
  • Spaces4Learning
  • Campus Security & Life Safety