NYC Lawmaker Thinks Workers Should Have Right to Disconnect

Proposal would let employees delay response to e-mails sent outside of work hours

March 28, 2018
NYC Lawmaker Thinks Workers Should Have Right to Disconnect

A proposed law in New York City would impose fines on employers in the city that require workers to connect electronically when they're off duty.

With some exceptions, the Right to Disconnect Bill would ban private employers with 10 or more employees from making workers respond to e-mails, texts and other electronic communications outside of scheduled work hours.

We've rounded up the latest news on how the proposed law might affect the workplace. Here are SHRM Online resources and news articles from other trusted media outlets.

No Need to Respond

The proposed law, which is sponsored by Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr., D-Brooklyn, wouldn't ban employers from sending afterhours messages to workers, nor would it prohibit workers from voluntarily responding. It would just give employees the right not to respond. "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," Espinal said. Workers in the city already spend an average of almost 50 hours a week working or commuting, according to a 2015 report by the New York City comptroller, and that's before factoring in time spent answering e-mails at home.

(New York Times)

Penalties for Breach

If passed, businesses would face a $250 fine each time they require an employee to access electronic communications outside of standard working hours. Employers would pay a $500 fine, plus all lost wages and benefits when a worker is disciplined—but not fired—for failing to access off-hours messages. When an employee is fired, the fine would rise to $2,500 and the worker could be eligible for reinstatement. Additional civil penalties may also be assessed. "If employees were given a legal 'right to disconnect' this may encourage more employers to moderate their expectations of employees and allow them to re-establish a boundary between home and work," Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies, told Newsweek. 


Several Countries Have Similar Laws

If passed, New York City would be the first American jurisdiction to offer workers a right to disconnect, but countries, such as France, Germany, Italy and the Philippines, have already passed similar laws. The New York City Council, however, might not be ready for such a law. No co-sponsors have joined Espinal yet, and a similar bill for city employees that was proposed last year didn't make it out of committee.

(The Washington Post)

Voluntary Company Policies

Even before Germany and France had such laws, some companies created policies to curb afterhours work obligations. In 2011, Volkswagen stopped sending e-mails to company mobile phones between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. Other German companies, such as Allianz and Daimler, had similar policies. France-based Kedge Business School issued an auto-response to anyone who sent an e-mail after 7 p.m. explaining that the e-mail was "out of schedule." In support of the New York City bill, however, Espinal said that the government should step in because it's not enough to hope that companies will create their own policies allowing employees to step away from electronic communications when they are off duty. 

(Fast Company)

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Discipline of Human Resources Technology]

Shift in Thinking

A workaholic culture can lead to burnout and depression, but would a "right to disconnect" law cause a shift in American workers' relationship with technology? Critics of the French law say it has no teeth, and Espinal's bill may face similar criticism. Dr. Jabari Jones, a psychiatrist with Maimonedes Medical Center in New York, said he isn't sure that the bill can change company culture, particularly because employers could still reward employees who voluntarily respond to afterhours work communications.



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