New York City’s Proposed No After-Hours Email Law Is a Good, if Flawed, Attempt at Promoting Work-Life Balance

 Ice floats along the Hudson River as the skyline of New York City and The Empire State Building are seen during freeze temperatures.
The city that never sleeps might be able to soon. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

A recently proposed law in New York City has the potential to change the way residents work—or more accurately, the way they don’t. City Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr. introduced a bill that would make it illegal for businesses with at least ten employees to require that their staff check or respond to emails, phone calls, or any other work-related communication after-hours. The law would be the first in the country to enshrine work-life balance into the legal code, and, while it wouldn’t bar employers from sending after-hours messages, it would leave the choice to respond up to employees. “Because of technology, it’s become very easy for people to be pushed to do their jobs 24 hours a day,” Espinal said in an interview with USA Today, “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.”

Similar to a 2017 French law requiring companies with over 50 employees to set guidelines on how to deal with after-hours communications, the proposal is a step in the right direction for everyone who feels pressured to check Slack or email while cooking dinner. Under the proposed law, employees who feel they’re being retaliated against for refusing to work after-hours would be able to file a complaint with the city. If found in violation of the law, employers could face stiff penalties ranging from a $250 fine to having to pay out full compensation plus $2,500 to a worker who was fired as a result. Certain industry sectors would be exempt from the law, including government employees, on-call staff like doctors and nurses, and companies with overseas business that requires employees to work at odd hours. While there’s no doubt that the intent behind the law is a good one, the fact that one of the exemptions allows any company to define a situation that must be dealt with “immediately” raises some questions regarding the effectiveness of a blanket bureaucratic fix to the problem of never-ending work.

At this point, constant email and Slack are just a symptom of a broader societal inability to unplug. According to USA Today, 63 percent of those surveyed by the Workforce Institute “said they would still work after hours even if it violated company policy.” So, it’s unclear exactly how many people would take advantage of a law like this, and even if they weren’t responding to email specifically, that wouldn’t necessarily prevent them from working after they clock out. And while the law might prevent retaliation, in a culture that praises workaholism, it wouldn’t prevent the crippling fear that being unwilling to be available at all hours will ultimately prevent you from getting ahead.

The bureaucratic minefield that employees would have to go through to report their employer also seems like a deterrent—although there’s an argument to be made that having a theoretically neutral governmental mediator might be more effective than a solution like France’s, where individual companies are required to implement their own policies, leaving the enforcement entirely up to individual HR departments. There are also plenty of industries besides international business and medicine where not responding to communications after 6 p.m. isn’t workable, including journalism. Of course, our collective inability to take our eyes off Slack doesn’t mean that employers should just throw their hands up in the air and resign themselves to their employees continually clocking uncompensated overtime. Espinal’s proposed law is a positive bellwether of a broader societal shift that needs to happen, one that clearly delineates boundaries between work and home.