NYC might bar employers sending off-hours messages to employees

The city that never sleeps has become the city that never stops working, says Rafael Espinal, a New York City Council member. His recent proposal would bar employers from requiring employees to respond to nonemergency digital communications outside work hours. 

Mary Altaffer/AP
Arlene Pitterson poses for a photo in New York on April 4. New York City Council member Rafael Espinal has proposed legislation that would not allow employers to require employees to respond to non-emergency electronic communications sent outside of regular work hours. Ms. Pitterson, a marketing and event planning consultant in Brooklyn, decided to work for herself, in part because technology led to little separation between work and home life due to constant communication from her former bosses.

Technology that once promised freedom from the confines of an office has, for many workers, become a ball and chain, blurring the lines between work hours and, well, any other hours. A New York City Council member wants to put a stop to that.

The proposal would bar employers from requiring employees to respond to non-emergency emails, texts, and other digital communications outside regular work hours. It would also outlaw retaliating against workers who choose to unplug.

The recently introduced legislation is only in its beginning stages, with initial committee hearings expected sometime in June, and doubters wondering how it could work, especially in the always-buzzing New York City.

But bill sponsor Rafael Espinal, a Democrat who represents parts of Brooklyn, said the legislation is needed because the city that never sleeps isn't supposed to be the city that never stops working.

"Work has spilled into our personal lives," he said. "We're always connected to our phones or to a computer once we leave the office."

It's important, he said, for people to be "able to draw a clear line between the workplace and their personal lives, to give them time to connect with their family, friends, reduce their stress levels, and be able to go back to work and perform at their optimal level."

The legislation would cover private companies with more than 10 employees. There would be exemptions for certain types of jobs that require people to be on call. Barring emergencies, bosses wouldn't be able to demand that workers check work emails or messages in off hours.

Companies that violated the rule would face fines of at least $250 per incident.

Mr. Espinal said he was inspired by a French law that took effect this year that gave employees the right to ignore off-hour communications.

Employers who wanted to return a communication could do so.

"If you love your job and you love what you're doing, I highly doubt that you will stop working," Espinal said.

The bill would be intended to make life better for people like Arlene Pitterson, a marketing and event planning consultant in Brooklyn, who recalled one boss routinely pestering her with late-night emails, then getting upset when she didn't reply.

It was among the conditions that led her to working for herself, in which she now sets her own boundaries about when she'll respond to people.

"The fact that we have to get to a point where we have a law about it is unfortunate, but it's necessary," said Ms. Pitterson.

"Technology has allowed us to work from anywhere at any time," she said. "It's now about being able to control the instruments so that we can still have a life."

The world has become a 24/7 place, and adhering to a policy like the one Espinal is proposing would be detrimental to a company's competitiveness, said labor lawyer Louis DiLorenzo of Bond, Schoeneck & King, who has spent years representing management and employers.

"The problems are going to be tremendous," Mr. DiLorenzo said. "I just don't think you can legislate against progress."

He also questioned how it would be enforced, and how an emergency would be defined.

"I can't think of a business that we represent that there aren't times where a lot of people wouldn't think of them as emergencies, but the client does," he said.

David Weinman, president of Fabco Shoes, a chain of more than 40 stores in New York City and New Jersey that employs 190 people, sees the proposal as government overreach.

"I think the city needs to get out of everyone's hair," said Mr. Weinman. "Regulations are great when they don't make everything you do more complicated."

He said he sends emails to employees on their off days or outside of work hours, but usually to make sure he doesn't forget to send it at a later time, and he's not looking for responses when they're not working.

"I don't know anyone who retaliates against employees because they don't answer emails," he said.

This article was reported by The Associated Press.

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