Brooklyn City Councilman Rafael Espinal has an idea to deal with one of the absolute scourges of modern work: 24/7 emailing. But some Brooklyn startuppers are pushing back on the plan as misguided and unnecessary.
Last week Espinal introduced a bill to the council that would make it against the law for companies to require employees to check or respond to messages after working hours.
“It’s difficult to draw a line between our work lives and our personal lives,” Espinal, who represents District 37, which comprises Bushwick, Brownsville and East New York told Technical.ly by phone. “I’m sure there are corporations and companies out there that take advantage of that and employees are being exploited.”
The proposed law would set up a system wherein workers could make anonymous complaints against their companies for emailing after hours. The city would check out the claim, and if the company were found to be breaking the law would fine the company $500 for the first infraction, $750 for the second and $1,000 for each infraction thereafter. The employee would also be entitled to $250 in compensation from the company in addition to compensation based on the amount of time they spent emailing in accordance with their salary.
The law would only apply to companies with 10 or more people, so the smallest startups would be exempt. There would be exemptions as well for jobs where workers need to be on call all the time, like firemen. An emergency clause also provides exemptions to the penalties for absolutely urgent messages. At the start of their employment, companies would have to define what the employees “working hours” consist of. The law is not limited to email, every form of digital messaging would apply.
Is it a good idea? Some Brooklyn startuppers are unimpressed with the proposed legislation.
“It’s ill-advised,” said Charlie O’Donnell, the founder and partner of venture capital fund Brooklyn Bridge Ventures by phone Monday. Through his venture funds, O’Donnell has invested more than $23 million into more than 60 startups, many of them based in Brooklyn and Manhattan. “I mean, I see what he’s getting at, and work-life balance is an important thing, but… what about when a startup team is really excited about pitching to a big client and they want to get it right and they’re working late to make a big push? That’s the kind of thing you’re signing up for when you’re at a growing company.”
Nick Lee is the cofounder and CTO of Dumbo design and development studio Tendigi, which he’s helped build up since 2010.
“It seems kind of silly to me,” he said by phone Monday morning. “If you’re a 15-person company and your boss shoots you a text and says ‘Hey, did you see that email?’ is he gonna get nailed with a fine over that? This doesn’t seem like something the government should have any reason to become involved with.”
Espinal said the idea for the law came from a French law that passed in 2017 with a similar goal and similar statutes. When asked if he’s on his phone during off-hours for work, Espinal replied emphatically: yes!
“I’m on my phone all the time and I understand how annoying it can be when you’re trying to spend some time decompressing with your family and friends. “I can only imagine what employees who are scared of losing their jobs what anxiety that creates for them.”
After-hours emailing can actually be better for workers sometimes, O’Donnell said. Whereas in the days before email, employees might have had to stay late at the office on projects, they can now leave the office but get work done from home.
“There are a lot of working parents who put their kids to bed and hop on email later and it’s that mobile technology that allows them to have that balance,” he added.
Espinal said he’s not sure of the likelihood of the law passing, not having taken the temperature of his colleagues on it yet. He acknowledged he didn’t expect the bill to be popular with businesses but that he’s received overwhelming support from the public. He’s looking to schedule a public hearing on the law in the coming weeks.