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March 26 2018

Should Responding to After-Hours Emails Be Banned?

by Patrice Lee Onwuka

Do you occasionally scan your email early in the morning or share your company's social media posts over the weekend to help content go viral? A New York City bill could make those after-hours communications illegal if required by your boss.

It's billed as an effort toward greater work-life balance, but this proposed measure forces government to micromanage communications between employees and employers in an unhelpful way that could have unexpected negative consequences for workplaces. And when did the right to disconnect become a constitutional right?

A New York City councilman the "Right to Disconnect Bill." Applied to all employers with 10 or more employees in the city, it would make it unlawful for private employees to require employees to check and respond to emails and other electronic communications during non-work hours except in the case of an emergency.

The bill would not prohibit a boss from contacting workers after hours or an employee from voluntarily answering and doing work. Workers who are contractually required to be on-call work after 24 hours would be exempt.

This lawmaker is pushing workplaces to establish a policy about electronic communications and hours.

The councilman says the intent is to give workers back the power to choose if they want to continue working after they sign off. He hopes it will have positive health impacts:

"I think that because of technology, the lines have been blurred on when the work day begins and when the work day ends, and there are employers who take advantage of that fact,” [Brooklyn Councilman Rafael] Espinal told Observer at City Hall on Thursday afternoon. “So I think this is a win-win, not only for the employee but also for the employers because their employees, with that time… [they can] decompress, reduce anxiety and be able to perform better when they get to the work the next day.”

The bill carries penalties that would stack up. An employer would be fined $250 every time it is found to have required an employee to respond after hours to an electronic communicationRetaliation triggers a fine of $500 on top of full compensation for what the employee lost, and if an employee is fired that fine rises to $2,500. The fired worker may also have to be rehired.

Technology makes workers more accessible through their smartphones, emails, and social media. When workers don't unplug, they can get worn out quickly and find that their quality of work and life suffers. There is even some research indicating a slight risk of irregular heartbeats due to being overworked.

Encouraging employers to recognize work-life balance will increasingly be needed and workplaces that do will attract good talent and reduce turnover.

But this proposed law is too restrictive, too sweeping, and may be counterproductive to the end goal of greater work-life balance.

First, it's impractical. New York City (of all places) operates in a 24-hour global world. Employees may be required to answer communications from clients and colleagues outside of their time zone. That unanswered message could lead to the loss of new business, a client, or escalate into an emergency situationA boss may need to hammer out a project or need a quick response outside of normal business hours. 

Second, employers may respond by escalating all issues to emergency status or making all employees on-call 24-hours. Either way it that defeats the purpose of helping workers disconnect. It may expand the number of workers tethered to their electronics for work. 

Third, the bill assumes that all employees are unsatisfied with or don't like to be required to respond to communications after hours. The flexibility to work remotely but be more available after hours is appealing to many workers. Working parents, for example, may not mind working after they put their children to bed. Others find it appealing to work over the weekend when there are fewer distractions. 

This is about changing the culture around connectivity. That is understandable, but this is not the way to achieve it.

This bill would impose restrictions that hamper work and may not actually stop the behavior this councilman is trying to limit. Instead, it may create workplaces where everything is an emergency or all workers are required to be on call.

 

IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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