NYC Burnout Bill Would Give Workers the Right to Disconnect (1)

From labor disputes cases to labor and employment publications, for your research, you’ll find solutions on Bloomberg Law®. Protect your clients by developing strategies based on Litigation...

By John McCoy

The city that never sleeps might get a greater opportunity to relax. New York City lawmakers are mulling a bill to end the workday after the quitting bell sounds.

The “right to disconnect” bill would ban employers from requiring workers to respond to calls, emails, or texts after a certain hour, with the intention of curbing employee burnout and fatigue. City Councilman Rafael Espinal (D) of Brooklyn introduced the measure, which aims to let employees enjoy their nights and weekends without fear of repercussion.

Recent studies show a dearth of downtime for American workers, with the traditional 40-hour workweek existing in name only for many of them. Employees spend an average of eight hours a week sending work emails after hours, according to a 2016 study by the Academy of Management.

The bill was inspired by a similar practice in France, where a 35-hour workweek was instituted in 2000 for employers with more than 50 workers. But Espinal’s measure goes further; it would apply to companies with 10 employees or more.

“We expect public hearings by the end of summer,” Erika Tannor, communications director for Espinal, told Bloomberg Law. The councilman has yet to receive any comment from the mayor’s office, but Tannor said the measure “passes with 26 votes; 35 makes it veto-proof.”

Twenty-six votes refers to a simple majority of the 51-member City Council. The bill isn’t expected to encounter much opposition, as Espinal’s party holds a 47-4 majority over the Republicans on the council.

One Size Might Not Fit All

One problem, according to Helana Natt, executive director at the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, is the application of the law to the city’s diverse industries, each with varied needs and obligations.

“It has to work across the board. What happens if you’re in the hotel industry, or an event planner?” Natt posed the question while speaking to Bloomberg Law. “Certain industries require communication on the weekend. What about a law firm? What if it’s just ‘where is that file’ on a Saturday and not a conference call for four hours?”

The right to disconnect should be a discussion at the time of hire, Natt said, rather than attempt to implement a law. “A lot of people work after 5 o’clock,” she said. “This needs to be a matter of communication between the individual employer and employee.”

The measure wouldn’t prevent employers from sending messages, but it would remove the employee’s obligation to respond. “I don’t see it working unless employees report the violations themselves, which might lead to retaliation,” Natt said.

Minority Leader Steven Matteo, one of the four Republicans on the council, told Bloomberg Law via email: “I certainly understand the need to maintain some ‘work-life’ balance and set appropriate boundaries, especially in a smart phone era where we are all connected, at all times. But that should not be decided by a one-size-fits-all government mandate. Government shouldn’t be involved in a discussion that should be between an employer and employee.”

“The Right to Disconnect bill seems to forget the fact that we live in the city that never sleeps. I just don’t think this is an area that we as City Council should necessarily be legislating,” Councilman Robert Holden, who ran for his seat as a Republican but is a registered Democrat, told Bloomberg Law via email.

Other concerns remain about how the bill would affect the financial sectors, especially considering that markets open all over the world in accordance with their respective time zones. When asked if she was concerned about how the measure could affect Wall Street, or whether she expects any pushback from the city’s business community, Tannor responded, “We’re open to amending the bill.”

Representatives for Councilman Eric Ulrich (R) declined to comment. Councilman Joseph Borelli (R) couldn’t be reached in time for publication.

Request Labor & Employment on Bloomberg Law