Following the lead of private and nonprofit businesses, the Department of Children and Families is considering adding GPS devices to its fleet of 800 vehicles to quash misuse of its vehicles.

In her proposal to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy‘s budget office, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz estimates these GPS devices will save the state nearly $250,000 in the first year by being able to prove misuse of vehicles, verify overtime hours and save 20 percent on fuel consumption.

GPS photo

Online GPS tracking using Google Earth. (courtesy of Tracking System Direct)

“Anytime you add additional oversight you reap some benefits and efficiencies,” said Cindy Butterfield, budget chief of the $894 million agency. The agency proposes cutting overtime by 10 percent for a savings of $1.7 million next year, and Butterfield said GPS devices will help DCF do that.

But union officials representing the 1,800 social workers at DCF are furious that officials are even considering this.

“I find it callous and insensitive that she does not trust her work force,” said Paul Lavallee, president of the social workers’ union. “There is already a target on our backs with these ‘How am I driving?’ bumper stickers on the back of our cars.”

A few years ago, then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell added bumper stickers to many of the state vehicles that ask citizens to complain online if they see unsafe driving or notice that a vehicle is not where they think it should be.

Because those stickers have led to a wave of accusations that are hard to prove, Katz said that GPS devices will allow the department to immediately prove or disprove them.

And in the cases of incidents that officials determine deserve an investigation, Butterfield said that employees should have no problem justifying where the GPS devices report they were.

“They are very good at documenting where they go,” she said. “It’s the expectation that if you went where you needed to go, you can document it.”

But Larry Dorman, a union spokesman for state employees, said investigating where employees are “becomes a huge waste of time” that can be better spent.

A model to learn from

When one of Patrick Johnson’s employees was accused of injuring a client while driving him to an appointment, he was able to disprove the allegation immediately by using the GPS software, which showed that the vehicle never stopped so the driver could commit the alleged offense.

“It’s a real safety and protection for our employees,” said Johnson, president of Oak Hill, the state’s largest nonprofit agency, which provides services for those with intellectual and physical disabilities.

The GPS device — attached to the engines of all 184 of his vans — also shows in real time online the vehicle’s location, and notifies him if the driver exceeds the speed limit by more than 5 mph.

bumper sticker

Then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell put this bumper sticker on many state vehicles a few years ago. Paul Lavallee, president of the social workers’ union: ‘There is already a target on our backs with these.’

Butterfield got the idea for this proposal at DCF from Oak Hill. Being able to determine where her employees are and if they are speeding is appealing.

“It’s added safety,” she said of her social workers, who travel to strangers’ homes daily to investigate unsafe living conditions for children.

Businesses — including Fortune 500 giants UPS and FedEx — already use this technology to guard themselves against missing deliveries and ensuring that their drivers use the best routes.

Will it save money?

When Lavallee learned that DCF is considering purchasing GPS equipment, his first reaction was that this was just another jab at state employees after a rocky past couple of months.

Malloy temporarily laid off 37 social workers this summer after state employees rejected his concessions package. A few months later, state workers finally accepted the terms, which included a three-year pay freeze.

“And now I find out they want to spend money on this? Really?” Lavallee said. “It’s disrespectful.”

Dorman agrees.

“This agency ought to spend its resources on the kids and the front-line staff,” he said.

But DCF officials think that because the price of GPS equipment has dropped so significantly in the past few years, they will actually save a significant amount of money — to the tune of $248,000 the first year even after buying the equipment.

“The product is out there at a much more affordable price,” Butterfield said.

An online search of GPS devices shows that their price tabs begin at $200, and there are no monthly fees.

That’s about what Oak Hill spent on the devices for each of their vans, Johnson said, adding that the agency has easily saved much more than that.

“Before we had no way to know where our vans were and relied on the goodwill of our drivers. We’ve had incidents of vehicles being where they shouldn’t be,” he said. “It actually pays for itself.”

Invasion of employees’ privacy?

When Oak Hill started tracking its vehicles, its union filed a grievance. Eventually Johnson was able to convince them of all the benefits the device will provide — safety and exoneration from accusations, to name a few. The union backed down.

But a look at recent court cases across the country by the Washington Journal of Law shows that judges have sided with employers who decide to use GPS software to monitor their employees. This includes Connecticut’s Supreme Court in a case where the city of Bridgeport tracked a fire inspector.

State law requires an employer to notify employees before beginning to trace them.

Lavallee said he doesn’t think his union has a case to file a grievance.

“It’s certainly in their right” he said of DCF. “If they want to buy GPS’s, they can buy them,” he said.

Growing support

While still in the proposal phase, the idea has the support of State Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, House chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, and Malloy’s budget chief Ben Barnes.

“It makes a lot of sense” if it will lead to savings, Barnes said, adding that since this is a management decision, “DCF should be able to make that call themselves.”

Guerrera said that while he doesn’t remember a proposal coming to his committee to fit all state vehicles with GPS devices or even a pilot program during the seven years he’s been the co-chairman, but he thinks it’s long overdue. The legislature’s research arm reported that the state spent $15.7 million on gas alone in fiscal 2008. Since then, the state has reduced its fleet by 800 cars, but gas prices have increased significantly.

“Many, many companies are doing this, so should we,” Guerrera said. “When you are dealing with hundreds of employees, there may be a few that aren’t doing what they should. This is a way to try and cope with that.”

But one major holdup could be proving that the move will save money and getting employee unions on board, said Sen. Andrew Maynard, Senate chairman of the Transportation Committee.

“I imagine this is going to go over like a lead balloon,” he said.

As a way to make GPS an affordable option, Guerrera suggests using the GPS technology already available on many of the state-issued cell phones to avoid having to purchase separate GPS equipment.

If the proposal were to be enacted, nearly one-quarter of the state 3,243-vehicle fleet could be tracked.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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