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Tech Matters: Can work-life balance be legislated? California bill will try

By Leslie Meredith - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Apr 17, 2024

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Leslie Meredith

New proposed legislation in California granting workers the “right to disconnect” would make it illegal to contact employees outside of work hours with a few exceptions. Employers could be fined each time an employee contacts a co-worker outside the established time frame.

Introduced by Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco), the bill aims to help workers achieve a better work-life balance. “Workers shouldn’t be punished for not being available 24/7 if they’re not being paid for 24 hours of work,” Haney said in a statement. “People have to be able to spend time with their families without being constantly interrupted at the dinner table or their kids’ birthday party, worried about their phones and responding to work.”

Both public and private companies of all sizes will have to demonstrate compliance with the requirements set out in the bill and establish clear working hours for all employees. Companies may be fined for violating their employees’ right to disconnect.

For workers, they will be able to ignore incoming communication from their boss, other management and co-workers during evenings and weekends or their normal days off, holidays and vacations without having to worry about repercussions. Haney said it’s time to update our laws to “meet the needs of the modern workplace, which include common sense and common decency.”

Exceptions to no-after-hours contact include natural disasters or other emergencies, as well as scheduling in the next 24 hours.

If passed, Assembly Bill 2571 would make California the first state in the U.S. to guarantee workers the right to disconnect. But it wouldn’t be the first in the world. Currently, there are 12 other countries with established work-life balance laws, including France, Belgium, Italy and Spain.

Groups such as the CalChamber, an association for California employers, expressed reservations about the bill, adding it to its list of “2024 Job Killers.” Senior policy advocate Ashley Hoffman pointed out that the bill does not specify whether the rules apply to exempt employees. “We have some concern that this actually restrains an exempt employee’s flexibility because it forces them to basically write out a set working schedule, which is really contrary to the concept,” Hoffman said during a recent CalChamber podcast.

It seems to me that the target is exempt employees; hourly employees are already protected with overtime laws and the like. But exempt employees are likely to feel the pressure of “getting the job done” regardless of whether that falls inside or outside of the typical workday. Note the bill does not say you cannot work after hours; that remains your choice. But if you feel you don’t have a choice, could legislation such as Haney’s bill provide at least a partial solution?

Clarify Capital, a small-business lending firm based in New York, surveyed 1,000 employees and business executives about the bill. Both employees and business executives support the “right to disconnect” bill, at a rate of 83% and 75% respectively. Fifty-eight percent of employees felt obligated to respond to work-related communications outside of work hours, but a similar percentage (59%) of executives said they did not expect their employees to respond after work hours — revealing a possible mismatch in expectations.

Communication is key, and is the first step employees and management can take to promote a healthier work-life balance. We all know about job burnout, something both groups want to avoid because of its drain on productivity and creativity in the workplace. Start by discussing your work schedule expectations with your manager, and if you’re the boss, initiate the conversation. It may be that the work doesn’t fit into an eight-hour day and additional resources are needed. Using allotted vacation days should be encouraged, while taking a mental health day shouldn’t be frowned upon. Keep emails within office hours — Outlook shows an alert when you try to send a message outside the recipient’s workday. Go ahead, schedule the email to be sent at a more appropriate time.

If you use the same computer for work and personal activities, set up two profiles — one for each — and log into your personal account outside the workday. And finally, don’t be that person who is always checking their phone for work emails. Turn off alerts on your days off. Believe me, if it’s a real emergency, you’ll get a call.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about technology for more than a decade. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.


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