Smartphones, computers, email and texts keep individuals connected to their friends and relatives. But the same technology may also keep employees connected to work at all hours and even when on vacation. Employees may respond to customers’ emails outside their regular work hours, or respond to boss’ texts on the weekend. This seems like an advantage for employers, but not everyone agrees with employees being constantly connected.
In France, a law that took effect early in 2017 gives employees the “right to disconnect” from work. That is, the right to ignore customers’ emails and boss’ texts outside their regular working hours. French companies with fifty (50) or more employees must negotiate guidelines with their employees, or put into place company policies, regarding the use of work email and other technologies during nights, vacations and weekends.
The United States does not have any similar laws, on either the federal or state level. In fact, many companies pride themselves on the accessibility of their employees, and people often race to reply to show they are attentive and responsive. But should we be rethinking the always-connected-world, too?
There may be good policy reasons to follow France and adopt such policies, including arguments that limiting employees’ time on work emails during off-work hours reduces stress and increases focus and productivity during actual working time. Regardless of the quality-of-life reasons, there is a practical reason for employers in the United States to impose limits on employees’ time on work emails. Both federal and most state wage and hour laws provide that certain employees who work more than forty (40) hours a week are entitled to overtime pay. Currently, overtime pay is one-and-a-half times the employee’s hourly rate of pay.
Employees who respond to work emails or texts outside of their regular working hours may end up working more than forty (40) hours a week. Employees eligible for overtime wages may claim that they are entitled to extra pay. In many cases, this could be true and employers could end up owing overtime, even if they never required their employees to spend nights, weekends and vacation time on work-related tasks.
Employers can take proactive steps to help minimize this problem, by establishing company policies addressing these issues. Such policies may limit employees’ access to work emails after hours, or may require advance authorization for any overtime work.
Employers should consult with counsel regarding employment policies and practices that best address the needs of the company while complying with federal, state and local laws applicable to the company’s place of business.