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Thursday at the Chattanooga Convention Center Fay Gaines, an employee of the convention center, clocks out. The convention center uses International Equipment Company time clocks.

Biometric time clocks aren't always popular with workers, some employees say, but the devices are winning approval from Chattanooga-area companies, according to a business that sells the fingerprint-activated devices.

High-profile customers include Rock City, the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Convention Center and Creative Discovery Museum, which all have bought into International Equipment Co.'s biometric vision as the Chattanooga-based company marks its 50th anniversary.

"We used to use a card system, and we'd have to print out sheets, carry them back and forth and write everything down," said Linda Pritchard, business assistant at the Chattanooga Convention Center. "This new system keeps us from having to hire another person."

That's music to the ears of companies trying to pinch pennies, because hiring another worker isn't often an option.

A tangled web of regulations, employment laws and other pitfalls have made it more and more expensive to hire, retain and, if needed, later fire employees, raising the cost per worker in recent years. By keeping better track of exactly how much work each employee performs, the cost per worker decreases, IEC officials say.

From the Bank of Cleveland (Tenn.) to other user businesses, information technology managers and human resource overseers say biometric time clocks are here to stay.

HISTORY

IEC began around 1960 as a spin-off of IBM, then known as International Business Machines, according to Robert Bible, the company's unofficial historian. Since then, the company has grown to a 50-employee firm with three offices bringing in $3.9 million per year.

The company got its start with time clocks and expanded into fire and security systems in the 1970s. IEC became the nation's single largest dealer of Kronos time clocks, one of the more popular brands, until Kronos decided to take all sales and marketing in-house seven years ago, Bible said.

But a switch to InfoTronics from Kronos equipment hasn't hurt the company, he said. In fact, he said that customers are coming back in droves "because of the hands-on service."

"We can take some of the burden off the IT or payroll department," said David Miller, account representative for IEC. "It's more important than ever in a tough economy like this one to target excess labor costs."

NATIONAL NEED

Nationally, the rising cost of labor has been cited as a reason for issues like outsourcing or trade deficits, and employers are eager to keep their costs below revenue so they can retain local operations, he said.

By ensuring that employees are only paid for time that they are actually working, companies say they can get more bang for their buck.

Hand punches, another name for hand or fingerprint readers, are specifically designed to eliminate "buddy punching." This is a practice in which one worker takes a friend's paper timecard and runs it through the machine, making it appear as if that friend arrived on time.

In reality, they may have arrived minutes or even hours later, causing the company to pay the employee for time not worked.

But it's not feasible for an hourly employee to fake a finger or handprint, Miller said, since each fingerprint is unique.

"An employee now only gets paid for time they actually work," he said. "For someone who is routinely 10 minutes late clocking in, those 10 minutes add up and save the business money."

The biometric clocks also help with legal compliance, said David Hawkins, operations manager. Lawsuits filed by former employees alleging instances of unpaid overtime or other allegations can cost millions of dollars to resolve, especially if records are handwritten or poorly kept, he said.

IEC also has locations in Memphis and Birmingham, Ala., and ships its clocks all over the country, Hawkins said.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.

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