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Blow off your boss' emails when off the clock? It may happen in NYC

A woman uses her mobile phone while crossing a street in New York.
Don Emmert | AFP | Getty Images
A woman uses her mobile phone while crossing a street in New York.

Whether it's a feverish message about an overdue report, orders to get the coffee machine fixed or an emergency request to attend a meeting, at least one politician here thinks workers deserve a break when it comes to receiving texts or emails from their bosses when they aren't working.

New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr. has introduced a measure that would make it illegal for businesses with at least 10 employees to mandate that their workers check or answer emails, texts or even a call on their smartphone once they're off the clock.

The proposed law wouldn't bar employers from sending a message after hours or dictate that employees can't respond. But, Espinal says, it should be the worker's choice.

"Because of technology, it's become very easy for people to be pushed to do their jobs 24 hours a day,'' Espinal says, "and employees should have the right without fear of retribution to draw a clear line as to whether they want to work during their personal time.''

Unplugging from work has become increasingly difficult in an era when the office, and all its myriad tasks, are literally a keyboard click away.

France enacted legislation last January giving employees at companies with more than 50 workers the right to ignore off-duty emails. And in 2013, Germany's employment ministry began prohibiting its managers from calling or sending messages to employees after the workday ends unless it was urgent, according to a report by The Telegraph of London.

But the New York City proposal is believed by Espinal and workplace experts to be the first of its kind here in the U.S.

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If approved, the law would enable workers who believe that they are being retaliated against for refusing to respond to a boss's after work email to file a complaint with the city.

If the claim is found to be valid, employers could face penalties ranging from a $250 fine to a requirement that they pay full compensation, plus $2,500 to a worker who is fired as punishment. Companies might also have to pay civil penalties to the city.

There would be exceptions. Companies whose employees need to be available at odd hours to take care of business overseas would be exempt. So would doctors, nurses and other on-call workers.

Any business that feels a situation has to be dealt with immediately because the company's performance is in jeopardy can also expect workers to get in touch, even if they're officially off the clock.

If the proposal were to become law, however, it's unclear how many employees would take advantage of it. In a 2016 survey by the Workforce Institute at Kronos, a workforce management technology provider, 63% of respondents said they would still work after hours even if it violated company policy.

"People have become accustomed to working more than 40 hours a week,'' says Joyce Maroney, the institute's executive director who added that some may choose to work longer hours to prove their commitment to the job and bolster their chances for promotion.

But even those who want to preserve their leisure time may hesitate to ask for it. "Laws like this do tend to illuminate issues,'' Maroney says, yet "just having a law doesn't mean people are going to feel comfortable bringing a complaint forward in their particular workplace.''

Still, "I'm going to applaud anything that attempts to give people more work-life balance,'' she says. "Whether or not New York City passes this law, especially in a climate of such low unemployment, it really behooves any employer to think hard about how they can provide employees with flexibility.''