How to Protect Time Off in a Remote Work World

Legislating the “right to disconnect” could help prevent wage theft in a virtual environment that has blurred the line between work and home.

In These Times Editors

Getting to relax after work hours isn't just healthier— it's what we deserve. Illustration by Terry Laban

right · to · dis·con·nect

noun

1. A policy to protect workers from being always on” during off-hours.

[Employees] remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails — they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.” 

Benoît Hamon, French Member of Parliament 

Why is this needed? 

Consider the following: You’re done with work at 5 p.m., but instead of relaxing, you log into Slack and wait to get pinged. Or you finally head home at 7 p.m., but tell your colleagues you’ll be available on email. 

This availability creep” is linked to poor sleep, stress, burnout and negative impacts on personal relationships. It’s also an insidious form of wage theft. While it’s difficult to calculate the off-the-clock hours workers log, Britain’s Trades Union Congress tallied more than 2 billion uncompensated hours put in by 5 million U.K. workers in 2018.

And the problem got worse during the pandemic, with remote workers averaging 2.5 extra hours daily in the U.K., Austria, Canada and the United States, according to NordVPN Teams. 

The right to disconnect is arguably related to the historic struggle for an eight-hour workday.

But can you actually force employers to stop emailing you on Saturday? 

In 2016, France became the first country to pass formal legislation requiring companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate over the use (er, non-use?) of electronic communication outside of work hours. Companies can face fines for failing to comply with the law. 

Italy and Spain followed suit, and Belgium, Canada, India, the Philippines and Portugal all have some right-to-disconnect measure in place, according to UNI Global Union. Most recently, Ireland’s Workplace Relations Commission recognized the right to stop working after hours and the duty to recognize another person’s right to disconnect by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours.”

What are the prospects for the United States? 

Americans have a particularly acute case of workaholism, working more hours than almost any other wealthy country. The combination of bootstraps culture, weak labor laws and an almost nonexistent social safety net keep workers dependent on crappy, all-consuming jobs.

In 2018, the New York City Council introduced a bill to ban companies from requiring employees to check and respond to email and other electronic communications during non-work hours,” but the measure stalled. In These Times could find no other, similar bills introduced in the United States.

But as the right to disconnect gains ground globally, U.S. workers might revisit an old slogan: Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will. 

This is part of The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. 

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