Column: California workers, does your boss bug you after hours and on weekends? This bill is for you

A man in suit gesturing and talking into a microphone on a stand
Assemblyman Matt Haney (D-San Francisco) has introduced a bill that would allow workers to disconnect from their jobs after hours.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Matt Haney, the Democratic assemblyman from San Francisco, has a text thread with a group of childhood friends. One works in biotech/bioscience, one in film media and one has a job in the fitness industry.

Earlier this year, Haney told me, one of them shared a link to a story about a new law in Australia that gives workers the right to “disconnect,” that is, to avoid answering most pesky texts, emails and phone calls from bosses once the workday ends.

“My friends all starting chiming in about how they feel that work/life balance is awful and people don’t get any time where they can switch off,” Haney, 41, said Monday. “Especially since the pandemic, I think this has gotten a lot worse. More people doing remote work has further blurred the lines of when people are on and off work.”


Opinion Columnist

Robin Abcarian

Just imagine: You end your workday at 6 p.m. and when the boss Slacks you at 8 p.m., you ignore them. Or you’re enjoying your leisure time on Saturday morning, and when the boss texts, you ignore them. The beauty part? Unless it’s about scheduling, or an actual work emergency, your boss can’t do a damn thing about it.

Crazy idea, right?

Not really. It turns out it’s not just Australians who are enshrining in law the idea of a better work/life balance. At least a dozen other countries have enacted similar practices, including Italy, Belgium, Ireland, Spain and Portugal. In France, they call it “le droit à la déconnexion.” In the U.K., the Labor Party has embraced the “right to switch off” or the “right to rest” as part of its “New Deal for Working People.” In 2022, Ontario became the first Canadian province to give workers the right to disconnect.

“Work has changed drastically compared to what it was just 10 years ago,” Haney said in a statement announcing Assembly Bill 2751 on April 1. “Smartphones have blurred the boundaries between work and home life. Workers shouldn’t be punished for not being available 24/7 if they’re not being paid for 24 hours of work. 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.”

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His bill, which will be aired in the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee in the coming weeks, would require a public or private employer to “establish a workplace policy that provides employees the right to disconnect from communications from the employer during nonworking hours, except as specified.” Employment contracts would have to clearly outline working and nonworking hours.

It would not apply to workers who have collective bargaining agreements.

Companies who routinely violate the law could face fines, Haney said, but the main idea is to let employees know what to expect from their work. Terms can be subject to negotiation. For example, Haney said, “Some people would like to disconnect between 7 and 10 p.m., and after their kids are asleep they are fine to be connected to.”

The increasingly blurry lines between work and leisure time are not a new problem in our digitized, overly connected world. Academic journals abound with pieces about the negative effects of the 24/7 workplace. Even before the pandemic, which shifted work practices for millions of people starting in 2020, the issue was a hot topic.


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In 2016, a study led by a researcher at Lehigh University found a link between “organizational after-hours email expectations,” i.e. anticipatory stress and emotional exhaustion. “The results,” it said, “suggest that modern workplace technologies may be hurting the very employees that those technologies were designed to help.”

In a 2019 article for the Notre Dame Journal of International and Comparative Law, labor attorney and former Marquette University law professor Paul Secunda wrote that “work is being done not only at home, but in transit and on vacation. The result has been loss of privacy and autonomy, causing a detrimental impact on safety and health, an attendant loss of productivity, and a lack of time for any leisure or recreational activities alone or with family and friends. Employees need to unplug to regain appropriate work-life balance.”

Some have pointed out to Haney that legislators are some of the worst offenders when it comes to after-hours demands on employees. In its headline on Haney’s bill, Politico joked, “The call is coming from inside the House.”

Haney gets that. He co-authored a bill that would let California legislative staffers unionize, which is expected to happen in the next year or so, and he has modified his own expectations about his staff. Since writing the bill, he told the New York Times, he has tried to refrain from calling employees after hours and on weekends.

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“Unless it’s an emergency,” he said. “I’ve become a lot more cognizant of that.”

Naturally, business groups are not wild about Haney’s proposal. The California Chamber of Commerce opposes it, particularly for so-called exempt employees who are salaried and are not covered by laws governing overtime and mandatory breaks.

Conservative outlets like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal have pounced: “Progressive ideas that originate in Sacramento have a habit of becoming mainstream in the Democratic Party,” opined the Journal. “Too bad there’s no way for the rest of the country to disconnect from California’s unreal politics.”


To which Haney replies: “Isn’t time with family among the most fundamental of American values? This is a very conservative idea in many ways. You go home and you sit down with your family and your phone keeps pinging? That’s not the American dream.”

Indeed. For many workers, the infamous “knock brush” noise announcing the arrival of a new Slack message after hours is more like the stuff of nightmares. Haney’s bill would offer workers some much needed, if metaphorical, earmuffs.