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by Derek Loosvelt | March 28, 2018


subway smartphone

In New York City, a bill was recently introduced that would give employees in the city the legal right to ignore after-hours emails and texts sent to them by their employers. The bill was based on a similar law enacted in France not that long ago. And like the French law, the NYC bill wouldn't make it illegal for employers to email and text employees at all hours of the night and on the weekends, but would make it illegal for employers to terminate employees' employment or otherwise compromise employees' employment because they do not return after-hours emails and texts.

Here, according to the lawmaker who introduced the NYC bill, is the reasoning behind its need.

“So many of us are glued to our smartphones and our computers, it’s important to understand that we don’t have to feel as if our work has to spill into our personal lives,” said Councilman Rafael Espinal, the sponsor of the bill.
The bill doesn’t forbid employers from contacting workers after they clock out, said Mr. Espinal, who modeled the legislation after similar laws in Europe. “It says that you, as an employee, should have the right to not answer that call or that email, without fear of retaliation.”

If you work in New York City it likely comes as no surprise that New Yorkers, on average, work more than those who work and live in other large U.S. cities.

The average New Yorker already works 49 hours and 8 minutes a week, longer than their counterparts in the next 29 largest cities in the U.S., according to a 2015 report by the city comptroller. And that’s not including hours spent emailing at home. A 2017 study found that, on average, workers spend an extra eight hours a week sending email after work.
Research has also shown that people who responded to work communications after 9 p.m. had a worse quality of sleep and were less engaged the next day.

So, do overworked, under-rested, stressed-out New Yorkers need a law like the one Espinal has proposed? And, if so, would it really work as it is intended to work?

The answer seems to be: it depends, and maybe.

On the one hand, there are professions in which a law like this would not work, and some of those professions are indeed being excluded from the proposed bill. Professionals such as on-call doctors and paramedics would certainly not be (and are not) part of the bill. And there are other professions where this makes little sense since being on-call at all times is part of the job, and employees in those jobs are compensated (some extremely well) for being on call. Qualifying here would be certain sectors of finance/Wall Street where the average worker works close to 80 hours a week or more and part of the job is replying to employer/client demands at any time of the day or night in any type of weather on any day of the week, including weekends and holidays. These workers, it is well known, are paid very well for their on-call availability. And laws would not change an entire industry culture but force firms within the industry to find ways around such laws, such as moving their headquarters out of state, that is, across the Hudson River, from New York City to Jersey City, as one Bloomberg columnist noted.

However, there are certainly workers in other professions who are being taken advantage of (you know who you are!) by employers who are not paying overtime and who are not being upfront with those taking positions in which they'll have to work (reply to messages, etc.) well after clocking out. And in these cases, laws might indeed help. They just might prevent employers from overworking employees or underpaying them, or both. And so, perhaps Espinal is on the right track.

That said, it is certainly hard to envision a scenario in which a "right to disconnect" law would work cleanly. Would employees simply ignore any email received after 5 p.m. during the week and anytime on the weekend as though it never existed? Would employers simply find employees who don't mind responding to after-hours emails and hire those over/instead of those who do? Would employees really file lawsuits against employers and use this law as a basis for their suits? Would most New Yorkers really stop working and stop checking their smartphones and tablets for work emails when they step out of their cubicles and open offices at exactly 5 p.m.? Etc.

And yet, the French should not be ignored. There is a reason a law like this was passed in France (and it is not because the French are lazy and/or enjoy the good life; the French are just as productive as Americans, data shows). And so, New Yorkers, and other workers across the country, should at the very least listen to what Espinal and others are saying, and warning against. Which is nothing short of our entire lives being consumed by work (and our devices).

If nothing else, even if it dies in committee, Espinal's bill will hopefully further the discussions about the importance of disconnecting, from time to time, from our distracting and addictive smartphones, and about the possibility that some advances in technology can improve our work and personal lives while also worsening them.

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