In today’s high-tech world, a constant connection to the web and phone comes at a price for workers: all too often, the office comes home with you. A Pew Internet & American Life Project 2008 study entitled “Networked Workers: Most Workers Use the Internet or Email at their Jobs, but They Say These Technologies are a Mixed Blessing for Them”, noted the following:
- In recent years, workers have become more likely to check their email outside of normal working hours:
- One in five employed email users and half of Blackberry and PDA owners say they are required to read and respond to work-related emails when they are not at work
50% of employed email users say they check their work-related email on the weekends. Fully 22% say that they check their work email accounts “often” during weekend hours, compared with 16% who reported the same in 2002.
34% of employed email users say they will at least occasionally check their email while on vacation; 11% say they do so “often.”
Fully 48% say they are required to read and respond to email when they are away from work.
Some experts say that employers are getting a free ride on employees by not paying for these off-hours activities. An ABC News report, “Overtime Pay for E-mails? Debate Grows” quoted Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the non-profit National Employment Law Project:
“If you aggregate all the workers [checking e-mail off the clock] and all the hours they do it, that’s really a ton of money. It’s very lucrative for employers”.
Others counter these concerns by pointing out employees shouldn’t be paid around the clock, 24/7, either. ABC News quoted John Robinson, employment attorney with Florida law firm Fowler White Boggs:
“Now the issue is if you have a BlackBerry or a PDA, are you working 24/7? You could be called at any time. . . . The company’s argument always is, ‘Yeah, but you can go to the movies, you can go to Disney World, but you just have the cell phone with you.”
One thing everyone agrees on is that the problem is growing as the US struggles with a jobless recovery and technology advances. Workers remain less likely to complain about after-hours work in order to hang onto scarce jobs. At the same time, employers trying to do more with fewer employees continue to squeeze more productivity out of workers tethered to Blackberries and email. ABC News quoted Alex, an hourly employee at a Web startup in the San Francisco Bay area:
“I really can’t complain because I know a lot of my old classmates are still looking for jobs”.
Nevertheless, a few workers have recently challenged the practice in the courts. According to a Wall Street Journal article, “Lawsuits Question After-Hours Demands of Email and Cellphones”, two recent lawsuits against employers T-Mobile USA Inc. and CB Richard Ellis Group Inc. involve novel legal claims that hourly workers should be paid for time spent responding during off hours to work messages on company-issued phones. In the case against CB Richard Ellis, a maintenance worker, John Rulli, is suing for back wages because he was forced to remain reachable during off hours via a company-issued Blackberry. Rulli’s lawyer, Larry Johnson, stated:
Ultimately, it appears wage and hour laws have failed to keep pace with new technology and the problems created by it. It remains to be seen how the question of “what is work in a digital age?” will ultimately be answered, and whether it will be answered by the courts or the legislature, or both.
If you have questions about unpaid work after hours, talk to a lawyer.