Despite the fact that working long hours makes you less productive–and doing extra work at home can actively harm your health–it’s common for companies to expect employees to answer late-night emails or texts. In the U.S., one 2015 study found that the majority of people who use smartphones at work stay connected for more than 13 hours a day. On the weekends, they spend another five hours checking email.
In New York City, a new bill aims to make it illegal for employers to require workers to check any work-related electronic communications outside normal work hours. If companies violated the proposed law, they’d have to pay a fine. The bill is modeled on a similar right-to-disconnect law that went into effect in France in 2017.
“As a millennial, I’ve always realized how technology continues to encroach on our daily lives, whether it be voluntarily looking through social media or through work, checking out work emails and text messages from the office,” says Rafael Espinal, the New York City councilman who drafted the bill and represents communities in Brooklyn including Bushwick and East New York. “When I learned that France had a similar concept in place, I thought that New York and the rest of the country should seriously consider this idea.”
A handful of companies have created related policies voluntarily. In 2011, Volkswagen stopped forwarding emails to company mobile phones between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. Another German company, Allianz, told workers that they don’t have to answer emails on weekends or during vacation time. Daimler went a step further, automatically deleting emails that are sent while someone is on vacation. In France, even before the recent law passed, some employers already set hours for email; at the Kedge Business School, anyone who sent an email after 7 p.m. got an auto-response saying that it was “out of schedule.” In the U.S., the healthcare consulting firm Vynamic encourages employees not only to stop checking email in the evening but also to stop bothering their coworkers.
Espinal argues that it’s not enough to hope companies create these types of policies, given that most do not now. “I feel that employees themselves find it difficult to advocate for themselves, seeing how high competition is here,” he says. “So it was important for the government to step in, as it has in decades past creating legislation and laws to protect employees in the workplace.”
Since Espinal introduced the bill on March 22, he says he has already received “overwhelming support” from workers. “I’ve heard many stories of them feeling exploited, them feeling threatened, them feeling like they don’t have a right to speak up about when they can disconnect from the workplace,” he says. “I think this will lessen a lot of the anxiety that goes with having a job in the city and allow people to draw their own lines about when work ends. It’s important to note that this doesn’t prohibit employers from reaching out the way they do now, but it just says that the employees can make a decision about whether they want to respond at that moment.”
The bill will now be heard in a committee that Espinal chairs, and he plans to hold a public hearing in the summer and to move it to the floor for a vote by the end of the year. If it succeeds, it may not fully shift culture–after all, it only says that employers can’t force workers to stay tethered to their devices, and people can still make the choice to do that on their own. But it could help.
If it can work in New York City, where the average worker works longer than in other U.S. cities–49 hours and 8 minutes a week, according to a 2015 report, not even counting extra hours spent at home–it could also work elsewhere. “It’s no secret New Yorkers are workaholics,” says Espinal. “But I believe if we’re able to do it here, then it’s able to happen anywhere else in the country.”