Should After-Hours Email Be Illegal?

I expect you have felt the curse of after-hours email. You’re getting ready to sit down for a family dinner or for a quiet evening at home when you think, “Oh, I’ll check my email one last time.” You check it and there, crouching at the digital door, is an email from work that demands your immediate attention. As you begin to respond, you realize that your plans for your evening have been scuttled. Not only are you dealing with the expectations of the one who sent the email – perhaps your boss – but also you realize that you won’t have peace of mind until you deal with that demanding email. Yes, you feel the sting of the email curse. And perhaps you return the favor with a few curses of your own.

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Now, you just may have a solution to your endless email problem. . . at least if you live in New York City. A law proposed by City councilman Rafael Espinal Jr. would make it illegal for businesses with at least ten employees to require them to respond after hours to email or to any other form of digital communication, including texts and cell calls.  (Here is a basic overview of the storyYou can see the actual proposed law here.)

The “no after-hours email” law has various exceptions. All government agencies are exempt (which seems curiously hypocritical to me). “Cases of emergency” are also exempt. In case you’re wondering, the proposed law defines an emergency this way: “The term ’emergency’ means a sudden and serious event, or an unforeseen change in circumstances, that calls for immediate action to avert, control or remedy harm.” (I wonder how the courts would handle this?) And the prohibition requires a definition of “usual work hours,” which for many professionals are not obviously limited. It should also be stated that companies could still send emails after hours and employees could choose to read them if they wished. But a company could not require an employee to deal with digital correspondence outside of “usual work hours.”

I have a variety of responses to Councilman Espinal’s proposed statute. Many reflect my personal views concerning economics and government and won’t be developed here. I do, however, want to reflect theologically on a couple of points.

First, Scripture makes it clear that God intends for human beings to rest on a regular basis. Sabbath-keeping isn’t just a requirement for Jews. It’s a gift from God to all people. For many of us, however, digital communication and the expectation that we will be available to work at all times have destroyed any hope of regular, true rest from work. This worries me, not only because the failure to rest dishonors God, but also because it is killing us. (And I say this as someone who struggles to accept God’s gift of regular rest. Sabbath has never been my strong suit.)

Second, the Bible calls us to treat others justly. This doesn’t have to do only with legal or political matters. It has everything to do with our ordinary relationships, including those in our workplaces. If you have a position of authority at work, if you have people who have been entrusted to your care, then the Lord expects you to treat them justly. Though I can imagine situations in which it would be just for a boss to communicate digitally with a subordinate after hours, I can also envision many times when this would be unjust. Consider the obvious case of a person who is paid by the hour but is not compensated for dealing with after-hours email.

I’m not arguing here that biblical commitments to rest and justice require us to endorse Councilman Espinal’s proposed law. But I am suggesting that the issues this law is meant to address should be matters of concern to people who seek to shape their lives and work according to biblical teaching. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether laws should prohibit companies from expecting their employees to be electronically available after work, I’m quite interested in the question of how Christians might shape workplaces and workplace cultures that encourage regular rest and that treat employees justly, even in a digital, never unplugged age.

In an upcoming blog post, I offer some thoughts on how we might work and lead in ways that reflect the biblical commitments to rest and justice. Meanwhile, I’d be interested in your comments.

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