Many employers use video cameras to prevent internal theft or for security purposes, which generally is permissible as long as the employers notify workers about the surveillance. But there are some instances where it is not allowed. Employers may not use surveillance to monitor union activity; some state laws limit how and where employees may be monitored; while federal wiretap law makes it illegal to record oral communication, which is why surveillance cameras usually lack audio.
This article provides a general overview of when and how employers may use video cameras to monitor workers. See Are Hidden Cameras at Work Legal? and the Workplace Privacy subsection of our Small Business Law Center for additional information.
Lawful Use of Video Surveillance
When employers use video cameras to monitor employees, they must have a legitimate business reason. State privacy laws may determine the extent at which video monitoring is considered legitimate and therefore lawful (check with your state labor agency for more details). Most of these laws limiting video camera use in the workplace pertain to restrooms, break rooms, and other areas for which there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. California law, for example prohibits the use of two-way mirrors in restrooms, locker rooms, and similar locations.
It is quite common for retail stores, banks, restaurants and other employers that interact with the public to use video surveillance in locations where security or theft-prevention is important. But while it is fair to say that an employee working behind the counter at a jewelry store has no reasonable expectation of privacy, employees who work in cubicles probably expect some privacy. Additionally, employers may have a difficult time proving that employees who only interact with other employees at the workplace need to be monitored.
Cameras that also record sound may run afoul of federal wiretapping laws, with or without an otherwise legitimate reason.
Surveillance of Union Activity
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRB) prohibits employers' use of video cameras to monitor employees' union activities, including union meetings and conversations involving union matters, while employers must bargain with union employees before using video surveillance. Additionally, employers may not use video surveillance in a way that is meant to intimidate current or prospective union members.