California could be first state to give workers right to ignore boss’s after-hours calls, texts, emails

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Victoria Ortiz was enjoying a turkey leg at a Disneyland France cafe with her husband and son two summers ago when her phone pinged. It was a text message from her boss: “Check your email.” So back at the hotel later that day, she dutifully interrupted her European vacation and fired up her computer.

“It’s the rat race for sure — 100 percent the rat race,” Ortiz, 46, an accountant at a San Jose medical devices company, said Monday.

The smartphone, Silicon Valley’s signature gift to modernity, has made it easier than ever for work to intrude into personal and family time, tilting work-life balance further toward the job. Now a California lawmaker says there must be guardrails to keep that in check.

“Smartphones have blurred the boundaries between work and home life,” said Assemblyman Matt Haney, a San Francisco Democrat, who announced a bill Monday, AB 2751 that would give employees a “right-to-disconnect” from emails, texts and calls after work hours.

And, no, you don’t have to be at Disneyland or across an ocean to ignore your boss.

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

France pioneered such laws in 2017 and a number of other countries around the world have adopted similar legislation for at least some of their workforce, most recently Australia. New York City began exploring a law in 2019, but California would be the first U.S. state to adopt such legislation.

Haney said his bill makes exceptions for after-work contact during emergencies, to discuss scheduling and for collective bargaining agreements with organized labor. Industries with traditionally late or erratic hours or that require workers to be on-call still could reach out to workers as long as on-call time is compensated and non-contact hours are clearly stated in worker contracts.

“This bill has a lot of flexibility to make sure that it works for all California businesses,” Haney said.

But the California Chamber of Commerce is opposed, arguing “AB 2751’s one-size-fits-all mandate ignores and conflicts with existing laws.”

“There are some positions where compensation is higher because people in those professions are expected to be available more often or be responsive during atypical times,” Ashley Hoffman, Senior Policy Advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an opposition letter.

Hoffman added that the law is too vague about what would constitute an emergency and which employees can and cannot contact a worker after hours — for example, can an employee contact a supervisor or a coworker? Such a law also could end up curtailing the flexibility in work hours that many consider a perk.

“They may work on the weekend to free up time during the week,” Hoffman wrote.

Count Ortiz among those workers. She said she “rolls into work at 10 a.m.” and often doesn’t leave until after 7 p.m. When her boss texted during her European vacation, she said she was the only one who could have answered the questions.

“I would never want my boss to feel they couldn’t reach out to me because of legislation,” Ortiz said. “That would be tough in Silicon Valley. Can you imagine?”

Other Silicon Valley employees had a similar reaction — they like the idea of work-life balance but are skeptical of the proposed legislation. After all, this is a region where tech companies have sleeping pods and napping rooms and free food around the clock to encourage all-hours work. It’s a culture that runs deep.

“My boss calls me any time of day, but I know I’m basically on retainer,” said John Ferrari, 30, who works at the financial technology company GFT Rewards and was among a bunch of workers lined up to order falafels and hummus at DishDash in San Jose. “When you take a job at a startup company, it’s expected that you’re going to be available at unorthodox times. I’m willing to make that sacrifice.”

Yew Wan, 50, who works in sales at a semiconductor company and often fields calls from Israel, says off-ours work is just part of the reality of a global economy.

“I work weird hours, but not really long hours,” Wan said. “That’s the way we need to conduct business. I don’t see how this legislation is helpful.”

Others such as Andrew Hoeppner, a 28-year-old technician at a San Jose solar company, said the legislation makes sense, especially if workers aren’t being paid for those extra hours. But he and others say they’ve learned to discriminate about when to pick up or reply.

“I just have my notifications turned off,” he said, “so if they email me, I don’t even see it till the next day — and I think that’s fine.”

“You learn to filter,” agreed Jack Palmer, who was lunching with his solar company coworkers. “I have no problem leaving a bunch of things unread.”

Haney said that the global economy is exactly why such a law is needed. American companies already have to deal with employees in right-to-disconnect countries such as France, Portugal and Ireland and risk losing workers to places that value work-life balance.

He said the idea for his bill came from discussions with longtime friends he’s kept in touch with who are employed in various industries and complained about after-hours work intrusions after reading about Australia’s right-to-disconnect law.

“They’re asked to be working all the time. They don’t feel they have the ability to say no and feel there needs to be more clarity about this,” Haney said. “Here we are in Bay Area where we created a lot of the technologies that made people able to be contacted at any moment. I think it’s appropriate to come up with a way that we have that responsibility.”

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