The Boss Is Calling Late. Should the Law Let You Ignore It?

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Few places have done more than the Bay Area — the center of the smartphone industry — to ensure that bosses can call, text or Slack their workers all the time, nights and weekends included.

But a San Francisco lawmaker wants to help curb the constant ringing and pinging that his region helped create. New legislation from Assemblyman Matt Haney would make his state the first in the country to give employees the legal right to hit the ignore button on their phones when the boss calls after hours. Emails, texts and other work communication could also be put off until workers are back on the clock.

Mr. Haney, a Democrat, got the idea from Australia’s new “right to disconnect” law, to be implemented later this year. It will allow workers to reject “unreasonable” professional communication outside of their regular workday. The idea originated in France and has spread in various forms to countries including Canada, Italy, Belgium and the Philippines. New York City debated a similar proposal in 2018, but didn’t adopt it.

Remote work, which the coronavirus pandemic helped to normalize for many workers, can make it more difficult to put a firm stop to the workday, Mr. Haney said.

“People now find themselves always on and never off,” he said. “There’s an availability creep that has reached into many people’s lives, and I think it’s not a positive thing for people’s happiness, for their well-being, or even for work productivity.”

California workers already enjoy more generous rights than those in many other parts of the country. The minimum wage is $16 an hour, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. And Gov. Gavin Newsom last fall approved laws giving higher minimum wages to workers in two industries: $25 an hour by 2028 for all health care workers, and $20 an hour starting April 1 for fast-food workers.

California law also requires employers to provide overtime pay, paid family leave, paid sick leave, reimbursement for business expenses, and mandatory meal and rest breaks. It also has broad anti-discrimination and anti-harassment protections that go beyond similar laws in many other states.

Mr. Haney’s bill, which would probably go to a legislative committee for consideration this spring, would require public and private employers to establish a policy granting workers the right to ignore off-hour communication from their bosses except in the case of emergency, or for scheduling changes affecting the next 24 hours.

Employers and employees would have to establish a written agreement defining work hours. Under the proposal, if the boss breaks the deal three times, he or she could be reported to the state’s labor commissioner by employees and be subject to fines starting at $100.

Collective bargaining agreements would supersede the law, so teachers, nurses and other unionized workers would be covered by whatever their contracts say about off-hours communication.

“This is not intended to say people can’t work long hours or have an agreement for a contract where they’re on call, but it should be made clear,” Mr. Haney said. “The problem we have now is the gray area, where an employee is expected to respond all the time when on paper they work a 9-to-5 job.”

Rodney Fong, head of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks employees are already enjoying a better work-life balance than they did before the pandemic. They can, for example, spend time with their children in the afternoon and return to the laptop later at night. Returning to a time when all work communication happened from 9 to 5, he said, is not really what employees want.

“There is a do-not-disturb feature on most phones,” Mr. Fong said. “Just because it rings doesn’t mean you have to pick it up.”

But Sandra Bardas, a pharmacist who lives in Menlo Park, a Silicon Valley town 30 miles south of San Francisco, said the right to turn off work would be a welcome change. Burnout in the health care industry is high, she said, and even bathroom breaks are hard to get.

“There’s always that lingering feeling of, ‘I have to be by my phone. What if they call me?’” she said. “This would be very important for our mental health.”

Michelle Avary, also of Menlo Park, works for a Swedish-owned trucking company and said it has been an eye-opener to see how Swedish people work. “When they are gone, I mean they are gone!” she said with a laugh.

But she said she thinks the California work culture is already doing a better job of prioritizing personal time, and the state has bigger problems.

“We have a budget deficit. We have a housing crisis. We have a fentanyl crisis. We’ve underspent on public transportation,” Ms. Avary said. “We need to focus a lot more on those.”

At least one group of employees is already benefiting from Mr. Haney’s proposed legislation. Since writing the bill, he said, he has stopped calling his staff after hours and on the weekends.

“Unless it’s an emergency,” he said. “I’ve become a lot more cognizant of that.”


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