The madness that is March Madness has shifted into high gear in offices around the nation.
An estimated 60 million people were trying to put together a winning bracket for the 2015 NCAA men's basketball tournament, which is well underway. For the next couple of weeks some might need a megaphone to get their co-workers' attention.
Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., the outplacement firm, estimates companies lose as much as $1.9 billion in wages paid to distracted and unproductive workers as they become glued to smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices to watch games, check scores and nurse their office pool brackets.
"This tournament and the betting and bracket-building that come with it are ingrained in the national fabric," John Challenger said in releasing the firm's annual March Madness report on workplace productivity. Gray said an employer would be hard-pressed to come up with a legitimate reason to limit employee involvement.
"Trying to stop it would be like trying to stop a freight train."
Companies in Atlanta were allowing employees to keep track of the tournament, mostly during breaks:
■Employees at Equifax, the consumer credit reporting and research agency, can keep track of tournament action with personal devices or television monitors in break rooms, spokeswoman Demitra Wilson said.
■Coca-Cola, a major NCAA Final Four sponsor through its Coke Zero brand, has established a game viewing area at its Atlanta office complex.
■Paper and building products maker Georgia-Pacific said workers are allowed limited personal use of devices as long as they are not distracted from regular jobs and use is not excessive.
WalletHub, an online financial marketplace, ranked Atlanta No. 7 for best spot in the country to be an avid professional and college basketball fan during March Madness. The No. 1 city was Storrs, Connecticut, home of the University of Connecticut. Cities were judged on performance level of each city's NBA and NCAA Division 1 basketball teams, ticket prices and other metrics.
Bert Brannen, managing partner of the Atlanta labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips, said "nobody wants to work for a killjoy," but employers should be aware that allowing employees to keep track of the tournament on company time carries with it potential legal risks.
For example, allowing some workers to follow the tournament while others continue to work may open companies to fairness complaints and even possible discrimination claims, Brannen said.
Allowing workers to use company computers to solicit involvement in pools could also open companies to demands that employees be allowed to use those same computers to solicit support for organizing a union, he said. Solicitation policies must be enforced uniformly, according to the National Labor Relations Board, Brannen said.
"Employers should strive for a middle ground," Brannen said.
■An estimated 102 million fans viewed the tournament through streaming last year.
■Coverage of semifinal rounds on Turner Sports channels attracted 16.3 million viewers last year.
■CBS coverage of the NCAA national championship attracted 21 million viewers.
■An estimated 50 million Americans participated in March Madness office pools, based on a 2009 Microsoft survey.
■Eighty-six percent of respondents surveyed by MSN in 2012 said they would devote at least part of their workday to updating brackets, checking scores and following the tournament.
Source: Challenger, Gray & Christmas