The Wall Street Journal Thursday, December 1, 1994
In his office upstairs, Mr. Edens sits before a TV monitor that flashes images from eight cameras posted through the plant. "There's a little bit of Sneaky Pete to it," he says, using a remote control to zoom in on a document atop a worker's desk. "I can basically readthat and figure out how someone's day is going." This day, like most others, is going smoothly, and Mr. Edens's business has boomed as a result. "We maintain a lot of control," he says. "Order and control are everything in this business." Mr. Edens's business belongs to a small but expanding financial service known as "lockbox processing." Many companies and charities that once did their paperworkin-house now "outsource" clerical tasks to firms like EBS, which processes donations to groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Doris Day Animal League, Greenpeace and the National Organization for Women. More broadly, EBS reflects the explosive growth of jobs in which workers perform low-wage and limited tasks in white-collar settings. This has transformed towns like Hagerstown--ablue-collar community hit hard by industrial layoffs in the 1970s--into sites for thousands of jobs in factory-sized offices. Many of these jobs, though, are parttime and most pay far less than the manufacturing occupations they replaced. Some workers at EBS start at the minimum wage of $4.25 a hour and most earn about $6 an hour. The growth of such jobs--which often cluster outside major cities--alsocompletes a curious historic circle. During the Industrial Revolution, farmers' daughters went to work in textile towns like Lowell, Mass. In post-industrial America, many women of modest
Control is one of Ron Edens's favorite words. "This is a controlled environment," he says of the blank brick building that houses his company, Electronic Banking System Inc. Inside, long lines of women sit atspartan desks, slitting envelopes, sorting contents and filling out "control cards" that record how many letters they have opened and how long it has taken them. Workers here, in "the cage," must process three envelopes a minute. Nearby, other women tap keyboards, keeping pace with a quota that demands 8,500 strokes an hour. The room is silent. Talking is forbidden. The windows are covered.Coffee mugs, religious pictures and other adornments are barred from workers' desks.
means and skills are entering clerical mills where they process paper instead of cloth (coincidentally, EBS occupies a former garment factory). "The office of the future can look a lot like the factory of the past," says Barbara Garson, author of "The Electronic Sweatshop" and other books on the modern workplace."Modern tools are being used to bring 19thcentury working conditions into the white-collar world." The time-motion philosophies of Frederick Taylor, for instance, have found a 1990s correlate in the phone, computer and camera, which can be used to monitor workers more closely than a foreman with a stopwatch ever could. Also, the nature of the work often justifies a vigilant eye. At EBS, workershandle thousands of dollars in checks and cash, and Mr. Edens says cameras help deter would-be thieves. Tight security also reassures visiting clients. "If you're disorderly, they'll think we're out of control and that things could get lost," says Mr. Edens, who worked as a financial controller for the National Rifle Association before founding EBS in 1983. But tight observation also helps EBSmonitor productivity and weed out workers who don't keep up. "There's multiple uses," Mr. Edens says of surveillance. His desk is covered with computer printouts recording the precise toll of keystrokes tapped by each dataentry worker. He also keeps a day-today tally of errors. The work floor itself resembles an enormous classroom in the throes of exam period. Desks point toward the front, where a...