A City Council proposal to give New Yorkers the right to not be constantly bombarded by work emails when they are not at work is facing pushback from private sector industries, who say that the law is at odds with New York City’s inherently demanding work culture.
The legislation, introduced last year by Brooklyn Council Member Rafael Espinal, is based on similar “right to disconnect” laws in France and Germany. It would require companies with more than ten workers to provide a notice of rights outlining their work policy, with explicit assurance that employees will not face retaliation for choosing not to answer emails, texts, or even Slack messages outside normal work hours. One study found that more than half of all Americans check work email during off-hours, including on sick days.
“The advent of modern technology has created an expectation among some companies that workers should be available around the clock, which can be devastating to their mental health,” Espinal told Gothamist. “By prohibiting retaliation when employees choose not to respond to after-work communication, we can establish clear boundaries and give them time to recharge.”
Predictably, the city’s bosses do not agree. During a public hearing on Thursday, a parade of business groups—including REBNY, TechNYC, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, and the Partnership for NYC—voiced strident opposition to the proposal. They cited a number of concerns, including the fact that it would hurt businesses’ bottom line, that it would not be easily enforceable, and that employees actually benefit from answering emails at odd hours of the day.
“Far too often, the council approves regulatory schemes that, while well intentioned, are approved without understanding the full feasibility or consequences,” argued Zach Steinberg, the VP of Policy at the Real Estate Board of New York. He noted that the right to disconnect has not been passed elsewhere in the United States, and would likely lead to confusion among business owners. “It is unwise to use New York City as a testing ground for such a novel approach.”
Under the current bill, employees would bring complaints to the Department of Consumer Affairs, which could collect civil penalties from scofflaw businesses and order relief for workers of $250 per instance of illegal nagging. While DCA emphasized that they support the spirit of the proposal, the agency revealed on Thursday that they cannot presently support the legislation.
In addition to needing to focus on other ongoing initiatives, Casey Adams, legislative affairs director at DCA, said the agency has “serious concerns about our ability to effectively enforce a law that requires the agency to closely regulate the development and implementation of policies across thousands of employers.” He added that a further study examining the benefits of the legislation would be warranted, but that DCA could not commit to undertaking such a study at this time.
While not particularly promising for the bill’s prospects of becoming law, the hearing did at least offer an instructive window into how some of the city’s most powerful business leaders think about low-level employees. During one exchange, Kathy Wylde, chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, seemed to argue that these workers do not actually face pressure to respond to work emails, because they have the free will to ignore whatever emails they want.
“The fact is that most of those contacts are more for the convenience of the employee,” argued Wylde. “Most of this communication is voluntary.” (As is reporting to work, and finding a source of income, and using that income to, say, pay rent. Totally your call if you want to do that!)
“I don’t think most employee-employer communication is perceived as voluntary by the employees,” interjected Council Member Brad Lander.
“You don’t think the employees want that reaction and that ability to communicate and be on the job?” replied Wylde. “You’re talking about a behavior modification!”
They both agreed that this was a complicated philosophical question that they would return to at a later date.
Later on in the hearing, Yannan Pena, a community organizer with the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, spoke in favor of the proposal, arguing that workers are increasingly robbed of personal time by exploitative bosses who discourage any time away from the job. “The fact that some of you think it’s a voluntary thing to respond to your boss—I think it’s crazy.”