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New Overtime Rules May Lead to Email Curfews at Work

leaving-work-email-ecardFollowing Obama’s new proposal to increase the number of employees covered by overtime pay, we may soon see employers putting a curfew on after hours emails.

Nicholas Castillo, a bank branch manager, provides a useful portrait of the 24/7 availability expected of many employees these days. When he was hired at a $30,000 salary a few years back, his supervisors explained that the position came with expectations: “My manager had told me, ‘You’re on salary pay.’ And she said, basically, ‘You are required to work more than the normal hours because you are on salaried pay,'” Castillo says.

$30,000 may seem like a small salary to justify round-the-clock availability, but Castillo took this arrangement seriously, and routinely works 50 – 60 hours a week with no overtime pay. He also experiences constant interruption during personal and family time on the evenings and weekends, when he is expected to keep up with his email

Castillo’s situation is not uncommon, since current overtime rules state that the majority of workers are no longer eligible for overtime when their salary exceeds the threshold of $23,660 a year. President Obama’s proposal aims to more than double that figure to over $50,000. This, in turn, would raise the number of workers eligible for overtime by nearly 5 million.

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center, explains that the new regulations won’t affect all workers identically. Raising the minimum salary may cause employers to convert more of their salaried managers to hourly pay status – which would mean those workers could start claiming overtime for checking email in the evenings or during weekends. “Two-thirds of all American adults have smartphones,” he points out. “The vast majority of office workers and many working-class workers also have smartphones. So these are now issues that involve lots more jobs than they used to.”

More than a decade ago, businesses in California adopted similar overtime rules to what Obama is proposing. At Pomona College in Claremont, the changes led managers to curtail after-hour communications and budget overtime in a more strict manner. In fact, as the Dean of HR explains, workers are instructed to refrain from downloading email to their personal devices or reading, writing or responding to email after hours so the college can avoid paying overtime.

Yet even in advance of the new regulations, more companies nationwide are adopting similar measures. Neil Boyd, a Bucknell University management professor, explains that raising the salary threshold for overtime will prompt some large companies to simply shut down email servers. Others could ban their hourly staff from logging in during off hours. “I think the No. 1 motivation is clearly going to be labor costs,” he says.

Yet there are other beneficial side effects of taking these steps that cannot be as easily quantified. Limiting email tends to increase productivity and happiness, since employees are better rested and less resentful about having to work during their personal time before and after coming to the office.

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Emery Reddy