A total of 59 employees of the city authorities in Milazzo, one of Sicily's major cities, were found to be leaving the office after clocking in, in order to undertake personal errands, Il Corriere reported.
The prosecution said that the workers would also clock in for absent colleagues using their swipe cards, meaning some weren't present for their entire shift. The investigation had been underway for several months, with Italy's finance police tracking the clock-dodgers using five hidden cameras.
Some employees were also followed after prematurely leaving the office, allowing investigators to build up a picture of what they were doing instead of work.
One of the employees used the time to coach a basketball team, while others were observed shopping or going for coastal walks.
Another spent entire shifts at the local bar, while one – whose job included responsibility for disciplinary proceedings – was spotted getting a massage during working hours.
The investigation was led by the public prosecutor's office of Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, a town in nearby Messina. Investigators concluded that the “widespread and repeated” irregularities they recorded were equivalent to 1,000 hours of unjustified absences.
The judge in charge of the preliminary investigations, Fabio Gugliotta, has ordered the 59 to report to the judicial police, and the city's mayor, Giovanni Formica, said: “We will be inflexible with those who have committed crimes.”
As well as facing criminal trials, workers who cannot prove their innocence could face losing their jobs and may also have to pay damages to the municipality both for the money lost and the effect on public image, following a set of new laws to combat absenteeism which were brought in earlier this year.
The absenteeism phenomenon
The problem of time clock dodgers hit the front pages in October last year after 35 people were arrested in San Remo in northwest Italy and 195 people were placed under investigation for absenteeism.
Numerous stories of absenteeism have made headlines in Italy ever since, while the government has vowed to crack down on the phenomenon.
In June, the Italian cabinet passed a law making it easier to sack work-shy public sector staff, leading Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to declare that the “good times were over” for time clock cheats.
Employers who choose to turn a blind eye to the time-stamp swindlers risk disciplinary action too under the new laws.
But the problem was not to be solved so easily, as proved by the case of some determined time cheats in southern Italy, who grew wise to the hidden cameras and wore cardboard boxes over their heads to evade identification.