Technological advances over the past several years including laptops, smartphones, and widely-available wi-fi, have made it a lot easier for people to get work done remotely. And while many appreciate the flexibility and increased productivity that these advances provide, some lament that the ability to work anywhere, anytime has morphed into an expectation to work everywhere, all the time.
In an apparent response to what some see as a relentless pressure to be connected to work 24/7, the New York City Council is currently considering a proposal aimed at giving workers the “right to disconnect.” If approved, the measure would prohibit private employers in New York City from requiring employees to access work-related electronic communications outside usual working hours, except in emergencies. The initiative would require employers to adopt a written policy regarding the use of email, text messaging, and other electronic communications during non-work hours, and would require employers to notify employees of their right to disconnect. Employees would be protected from retaliation and termination for refusing to access electronic communications after hours. The law would be enforced by a city agency, and violations would be punishable by fines ranging from $50 to $2,500 per incident.
It’s unclear whether this proposal will actually become law in New York City, and it is probably unlikely that laws like this would be widely adopted throughout the country anytime soon. However, the issue of employees’ after-hours electronic communications is a real one. An article in the New York Times suggests that employees spend about eight hours per week answering emails on nights and weekends. This constant connection to work can lead to burnout and low employee morale. There are also legal considerations. For example, after-hours electronic communications by non-exempt employees can lead to problems with overtime and wage laws. Also, employers need to consider whether they will provide devices to employees, or adopt a “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) policy. Each of these options carries its own risks and benefits. The bottom line is that wise employers will want to work with their employment counsel to make sure that they have clear and well thought out policies regarding employee use of electronic communications outside of normal working hours.