California Law Would Give Workers ‘Right to Disconnect’ From Employer’s Messages Outside Work Hours

At least thirteen countries around the world have adopted “right to disconnect” laws in recent years, banning employers from forcing workers to always be ready to answer emails and phone calls outside of work hours. And California could be next if new legislation makes its way through the state legislature.

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Assembly Bill 2751 would require all employers in California to clearly differentiate between working and non-working hours in any given job and create “company-wide action plans” to make sure employees are only required to respond to messages during working hours or according to a plan agreed upon ahead of time.

The proposed law was announced by Matt Haney, a Democratic member of the California State Assembly, the lower house of the state’s bicameral legislature. Haney, who represents San Francisco, noted that the U.S. ranks 53rd in the world for work-life balance and cited a study from the European Union that found “higher levels of job satisfaction and fewer health issues” in countries with right-to-disconnect laws.

“Work has changed drastically compared to what it was just 10 years ago. Smartphones have blurred the boundaries between work and home life,” Haney said in an emailed statement to Gizmodo.

“Workers shouldn’t be punished for not being available 24/7 if they’re not being paid for 24 hours of work,” Haney continued. “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.”

Under the proposed legislation, the California Labor Commissioner would be allowed to fine any employers caught habitually breaking the law. But Haney was also quick to note that plenty of flexibility is built into the law to ensure that businesses are happy.

From Haney’s press release:

AB 2751 makes exceptions for after work contact during emergencies or to discuss scheduling. It also makes exceptions for organized labor, allowing collective bargaining agreements to supersede right to disconnect laws. Industries with traditionally late, or erratic hours, or those that require workers to be on-call, would still be allowed to contact workers as long as non-contact hours are clearly stated in worker contracts, or on-call time is compensated.

The legislation has been referred to the Assembly Labor Committee and won’t be heard for at least a couple of weeks. And it’s still too early to determine what kind of fate it may find in the California legislature. But Haney seems optimistic that California can provide these kinds of worker protections since many international employers are already doing the same thing in a host of other countries.

“Many of California’s larger employers are already abiding by right-to-disconnect laws in other countries and choosing to grow their companies rapidly in those places. They’re providing their French, Portuguese and Irish employees clear delineation between ‘work time’ and ‘non-work time,’ they’re just not doing that for Californians,” said Haney.

“We’ve crafted it in a way that addresses the recent changes to work brought on by new technology, but to also be pro-California business. California businesses will be more competitive for desperately needed workers as a result of this law.”

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Matt Novak