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 Should Employees Have a “Right of Disconnecting?”

Almost all jobs today involve digital technology, whether it be e-mails, Internet access, or smartphone use.  Most employees, when interviewed, say that digital technology increases their productivity and flexibility.  The downside is what some call an “electronic leash” – employees are constantly connected and therefore end up working when they are not “at work.” Over one-third of full-time workers, for example, say that they frequently check e-mails outside normal working hours.

Do Workers Have the Right to Disconnect?

Because the boundaries between being “at work” and being “at leisure” can be so hazy, some labor unions in other countries have attempted to pass rules that allow employees to disconnect from e-mail and other work-related digital communication during nonworking hours.  For example, a French labor union representing high-tech workers signed an agreement with a large business association recognizing a “right of disconnecting.”

In Germany, Volkswagen and BMW no longer forward e-mail to staff from company servers after the end of the working day.  Other German firms have declared that workers are not expected to check e-mail on weekends and holidays.  The government is considering legislating such restrictions nationwide.

The Thorny Issue of Overtime and the Fair Labor Standards Act

In the United States, payment for overtime work is strictly regulated under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  According to the Supreme Court, in this context, work is “physical or mental exertion (whether burdensome or not) controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily for the benefit of the employer and his business.”  This definition was extended to off-duty work if such work is an “integral and indispensible part of [employees’] activities.”  For example, a court recently ruled that Hormel Foods Corporation had to pay its factory workers for the time it took them to change into and out of the required white clothes before and after their shifts.

Today’s modern digital connectivity raises issues about the definition of work.  Employees at several major companies, including Black & Decker, T-Mobile, and Verizon, have sued for unpaid overtime related to smartphone use.  In another case, a police sergeant has sued the city of Chicago, claiming that he should have been paid overtime for hours spent using his personal digital assistant (PDA).  The police department had issued PDAs to officers and required them to respond to work-related communications even while off duty.  The court agreed that some of the officers’ off-duty PDA activities were compensable.  Nevertheless, it ruled in favor of the city because the officers had failed to follow proper procedures for filing overtime claims.

Not All Employees Demand the “Right to Disconnect”

In a recent Gallup poll, 79 percent of full-time employees had either strongly positive or somewhat positive views of using computers, e-mail, tablets, and smartphones to work remotely outside of normal business hours.  According to the same poll, 17 percent of them report “better overall lives” because of constant online connectivity with their work.  Working remotely after business hours apparently does not necessarily result in additional work-related stress.

Question Presented

From an ethical point of view, is there any difference between calling subordinates during off hours for work-related questions and sending them e-mails or text messages?

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