Can You Ask Employees to Answer Emails After Hours?

BY: ON WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2014

As technology continues to blur the lines between our online and offline worlds, many workers are finding the distinction between work and home harder to enforce. Smartphones make it easier than ever to access work emails 24/7, and many offices operate an unspoken rule – or even a spoken one – that some emails will be answered out-of-hours. For some, it makes life easier – but for others the inability to escape work communications adds unnecessary stress. Where do we draw the line? What’s more, can employers expect or ask their workers to read emails once the working day is over?

Legally, there’s no limit to the amount of time a person can spend working per week, but, for most workers, any time spent working over 40 hours needs to be paid at an overtime rate – time-and-a-half under current Department of Labor rules. An employee working Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. already works 40 hours per week, meaning any extra work even five minutes checking email – needs to be compensated. Checking email and typing a few quick replies might not seem like much, but workers’ rights advocates see it as a slippery slope that threatens employees’ free time (and, potentially, their right to be paid for all the work they do). It’s not just an American problem, either. Across the Atlantic, new rules are hoping to put an end to the trend of checking work emails after hours.

A new labor agreement in France, signed on April 1 by unions and certain employers, restricts almost 250,000 high-tech and consulting field workers from answering emails and other communications after work hours. Specifically, the workers – who are paid by the day, rather than the hour, and so aren’t covered by France’s usual 35-hour workweek laws – are also guaranteed one day off in seven and, crucially, companies are obligated to ensure staff “disconnect” while off work. It’s unclear what this will mean, but it’s possible that employers will find themselves responsible for ensuring workers have no need whatsoever to use company devices or software while not on the clock. To Americans, the idea may seem restrictive; however, the philosophy behind the agreement is, in and of itself, a positive one – attempting, as it does, to ensure employees get time off, while also hoping not to stifle companies’ ability to operate in a global market.

It’s not just the French that are fighting back against twenty-four hour email access. Andrea Nahles, the German employment minister, recently issued a call for “anti-stress” laws restricting emails out of office hours. She recently commissioned a report into the feasibility of banning companies from contacting employees while they were off work. In this case, the concern seems to be for workers’ health: Nahles told one Germany newspaper:

“There is an undeniable relationship between constant availability and the increase of mental illness […] We need universal and legally binding criteria.”

Germany has already passed laws forbidding companies from contacting workers during holidays, while after-hours contact has been voluntarily restricted by companies including Volkswagen and BMW. Could a nationwide ban be next? Opponents argue that large companies, dealing with multiple time zones and strict deadlines, may need workers to occasionally put in the extra hour. The answer to that, though, is simple: if workers are being paid for the time they’re asked to work, they’re no longer off work, and so any law restricting communication won’t apply. As a business, you must always ensure that all time your employees spend on company tasks is compensated.

So, could the United States follow Europe? And should companies already be wary of sending emails at all hours of the day? Right now, as long as you’re not requiring workers to take on work-related tasks without compensation, employers are more than welcome to send emails with the understanding that the employee will read and respond whenever they’re next at work. Phoning or text messaging could be more problematic – the UK’s Institute of Management has previously warned that calling workers at home could constitute an invasion of privacy and even open companies up to legal action under human rights legislation. While that might sound extreme, it’s clearly preferable for companies to have a black-and-white policy in place about when, how, and who can get in touch with workers during time off and holidays.

At the end of the day, stressed and overwhelmed workers hurt a company, and happy employees are more likely to work harder and help your business grow. No matter how laws governing email and cell phone usage may change in the future, businesses should remember that everyone has a right to a fair wage.

Image via Shutterstock

About the Author

Greg Coleman

Greg Coleman is the founder and Managing Partner of Greg Coleman Law, located in Knoxville, Tennessee. Mr. Coleman represents individuals in complex class action lawsuits involving defective consumer products and dangerous prescription drugs.

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