YOUR LEGAL RIGHT TO DISCONNECT FROM WORK
Many of us have been in a work situation where we’ve had a boss or supervisor who does not respect our personal time. If it is on his or her mind, there is a primal need to share and address immediately, regardless of the where or when. After putting in a long day on the job, you come home to after-hour work emails or texts that seem to have some urgency, or why else would your employer not wait to contact us about the work matter the following morning, DURING WORK HOURS? In a world now defined by virtual immediacy and constant connectivity, it has become increasingly difficult to shut down and turn off our electronics. And because we are always reachable, it becomes instinctual to promptly respond, if not impossible to ignore communications as they arrive, especially when the reach out is from a hire up at work. As a result, your “9-5” job can quickly morph into a 24/7 situation. The problem with that, besides the obvious interruption to your valued personal down time, is that you are only being compensated for your designated hours and every email that you respond to or even read outside of those hours is being done at your expense and at your employer’s gain. Not only is this inherently unfair, it might even be unlawful. In fact, in Europe, employees have the legal right to disconnect from work, and the U.S., and New York and Connecticut in particular, may not be that far behind in this trend.
A SIMPLE SOLUTION
The solution to all of this might seem simple and just be one of being paid overtime for any communications that take place outside of your regular hours. However, overtime compensation is already clearly defined by the law and many employees are exempt from overtime pay. Generally, an employer has to pay overtime, time-and-one-half of wages, to any employee who works more than 40 hours in one week. And that work might and should certainly include responding to work related emails and texts. But an employer does not have to pay overtime at all, regardless of how many hours worked or when those hours are worked, depending on the title and/or specific job duties of that employee. For the most part, an employee is “exempt” under the overtime law if they fit into the category of executive, administrative or professional. If you think you are not being paid overtime for which you are entitled, you should contact a labor and employment attorney and/or contact the Connecticut Department of Labor to better understand your rights.
WHAT IF YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO OVERTIME PAY?
So, what about the class of employees who do not benefit from the overtime laws? What right do these employees have in the workplace when it comes to a boss who does not value your personal time outside of the office? Generally, employment in Connecticut is “at-will,” which means that an employer can make unilateral decisions regarding almost anything, including an employee’s duties, hours and/or compensation. Unfortunately, in an at will arrangement, the employer can do things that might seem unfair and out of line, such as emailing you repeatedly over the weekend or at night. Taking this a step further, because an at will employee can be terminated or disciplined at any time, for any reason, as long as it is not a reason expressly prohibited by law, an employer can not only require or expect you to stay connected outside of your usual work hours but may even have the right to take an adverse action against you if you fail or refuse to engage. In these instances, it is important to take a deeper look into the narrative and nuances surrounding these off-hour communications. If you are treated differently in this regard than other employees, or if your employer has different expectations of you when it comes to requiring you to attend to such communications, this may be unlawful behavior if you are a member of a protected class because of your age, gender or race. In those instances, you should contact a labor and employment attorney to better understand your rights and potential for monetary damages against your employer for the disparate discriminatory treatment.
THE FRENCH HAVE A NEW SOLUTION- RIGHT TO DISCONNECT LAW
However, what can be done if you are exempt from overtime pay and there is no discriminatory motive that would make excessive, off-hour communications unlawful? This is the very scenario that France has recently addressed in their new ‘Right to Disconnect’ law. This law that went into effect on January 1, 2017 gives French employees a qualified legal right to ignore work emails outside of normal business hours. The law was designed to curtail unfair and uncompensated work related technology use and communications and requires companies with 50 or more employees to develop policies with their workers that limit work-related electronic communications use after hours. Covered firms are required to negotiate email guidelines with their employees to regulate email use to ensure employees are able to possess time away from the office. If employers and employees cannot agree on an appropriate policy, then the employer is obligated to publish a charter that regulates when employees can disconnect.
NEW LAW WOULD PROMOTE A WORK LIFE BALANCE
This is not only a clear victory for employees abroad, but it has sent a clear and strong message back in the states. This new law alleviates the cognitive, psychological and emotional load that employees suffer when responding to a work task on personal time. Interruptions at home disrupt the relaxation and recovery process that is necessary for healthy work-life balance. Research suggests that never “shutting off” increases stress and has both physical and psychological effects that has led many companies, such as Google, to hire mindfulness experts to help employees disconnect and clear their minds.
NEW YORK CITY RIGHT TO DISCONNECT LAW
But, will the US formally embrace a similar policy to that recently enacted in France? The answer is a definite maybe, particularly if you live and work in New York City. A new bill has been introduced that would ensure private employees in New York City have the right to disconnect from work. READ THE BILL (.pdf). The law aims to give workers a break from texting, calling or emailing when off the clock and will give the employee the right to disconnect without fear their bosses are going to fire them, discipline them or cut their pay. While an employer can still contact the employee, the employee has the right to decide if that phone call is more important than their personal time. In sum, the proposed law would make it illegal for a company to require employees to access work email and other communications outside the office. It would apply to regular time off, sick days and vacation time, and covers all employers with 10 or more workers. Overall, it would require employers to adopt a written policy governing the use of electronic devices and other digital communications during non-work hours, and would set forth the “usual work hours” for each class of employee, and the categories of paid time off available to employees. The law would prohibit retaliation against employees, who exercised or attempted to exercise any right to disconnect. As stated above, currently, nonexempt employees who are experiencing work-related communications outside of their usual work hours are generally required to be paid and protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act and therefore, those non-exempt employees are not the focus of this bill.
WILL CONNECTICUT ENACT A RIGHT TO DISCONNECT LAW?
The word on the street is that Connecticut may follow suit and lawmakers are considering introducing similar type right to disconnect legislation. But that could be years down the horizon, if ever. So, until then, what can you do if you are being barraged with off the clock/off-hour texts or emails from your employer? You can petition your local representative and lobby to get momentum on a right to disconnect bill in Connecticut. You can also petition and form a coalition with your fellow employees to negotiate guidelines, if your employer is a large enough and forward thinking enough company, such as Google. Lastly, you can seek labor and employment counsel to determine if you are either a non-exempt employee protected by the FLSA overtime laws, or if you are an exempt employee (admin, executive or professional) who believes the off-hour communications are routed in or motivated by some unlawful context or motive such as discrimination or harassment. Or you can relocate to Paris!