Plenty of American workers believe their bosses are snooping on them and don't respect their privacy rights, a survey released Thursday shows.
The survey says most workers oppose the kinds of questions about off-the-job lifestyles some companies are asking in an effort to hold down health-care costs."Millions of workers fear that employers are now collecting and using health and lifestyle information improperly," Alan F. Westin, a professor of law and government at Columbia University who was academic adviser for the study, said at a news conference.
The study was commissioned by the Educational Film Center, which produces programs for public television stations.
The random telephone survey was taken by Louis Harris and Associates of New York City between March 31 and April 28, 1993. The results were withheld until Thursday to coincide with the release next week of a television documentary, "Off Limits: Your Health, Your Job, Your Privacy," which will air on public TV stations.
Westin said there was "not a sharp conflict" between what companies and workers consider relevant information. But the study showed workers are becoming increasingly concerned that personal information being gathered by employers may be used against them in the future.
In particular, he said, collection of medical data by companies concerned about rising health-care costs could lead to a "two-tier system . . . of employable healthy people on the one hand and marginal or high-risk people on the other." Increasing insurance costs will "push more employers to be more and more intrusive," he said.
Pollsters interviewed 1,000 adults who said they were employees of private-sector companies with 15 or more workers. Also questioned were 300 senior-level personnel executives at companies with 25 or more workers. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Most workers - 61 percent of those polled - said their employers respected after-hours privacy "very well." Another 29 percent said their bosses respected off-the-job privacy "somewhat well," 8 percent "not very well" and 3 percent "not well at all."
Respondents believed employers had the right to verify information provided by job applicants. For instance, eight in 10 thought it appropriate for employers to check an applicant's educational background or find out whether the applicant had a criminal record.
But they expressed less support for the inquiries many companies are making to help reduce health-care costs. Tests for nicotine use away from work were opposed by 93 percent of the respondents and 69 percent objected to urine tests for alcohol use.
Another 69 percent believed psychological tests that measure attitudes and social preferences were inappropriate, and 59 percent opposed the use of blood tests to determine whether an applicant had been exposed to the virus that causes AIDS.
Minority and low-income workers were the most concerned about employer misuse of personal information.
Nearly a quarter of black respondents said their employers had asked for information they believed was inappropriate and not really needed for employment, as opposed to 10 percent of respondents overall.
One in 10 blacks said they had chosen not to file a claim to be reimbursed by employer-provided health insurance because they did not want the employer or another employee to learn the nature of their treatment. That compared with 3 percent of respondents overall.
Ten percent of respondents from households with annual incomes of $15,000 or less said they had medical or health information they provided to an employer improperly disclosed to other people, compared with 4 percent of respondents from all income groups.