Corp Comm Connects

Buried in after-hours emails? Ontario to propose ‘right-to-disconnect’ laws
Oct. 26, 2021
Sara Mojenhedzadeh

Ontario employers will soon be required to create right-to-disconnect policies for their workplaces, in an effort to address the ills of “hyper-connectivity.”

Legislation expected to be introduced this week will, if passed, require workplaces with more than 25 employees to develop internal right-to-disconnect standards. The move would make Ontario the first province in Canada to implement such a measure.

“This is a small change that is going to help make a big difference for workers in Ontario,” Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said in an interview.

“We all have family members and friends that struggle with mental health, and I think this is the one of the biggest ways we can help solve some of those challenges.”

It comes as the pandemic increasingly blurred lines between professional and personal lives for those able to work from home, accelerating long hours and what some call “availability creep.”

Existing research suggests the issue particularly affects women, who take on an estimated 33 per cent more unpaid labour through household chores and caregiving responsibilities.

In 2017, France became the first country to legislate the right to disconnect, directing employers to create a “charter of good conduct” that specifies hours when employees shouldn’t write or respond to email.

A recent study by the World Health Organization and International Labour Organization found long working hours are leading to a growing number of deaths from heart disease and stroke. But not everyone agrees that right-to-disconnect laws alone are a strong enough answer.

Instead, some labour advocates have called for stronger overtime and rest protections to tackle the issue. Data shows that due to loopholes in provincial employment standards, less than a third of low-income workers in Ontario are fully covered by overtime laws.

“Working from home has meant long hours, in some cases without overtime pay,” said a recent submission to the provincial labour ministry from the Workers’ Action Centre and Parkdale Community Legal Services.

“The inequalities revealed and aggravated by the pandemic underscore the need to improve the regulation of wages and working conditions.”

A recent report from a panel of labour experts convened by Ottawa warned that a statutory right to disconnect would be “difficult to operationalize and enforce” and should be left to individual workplaces to navigate.

The report recommended emulating a different set of French regulations, which explicitly require employers to compensate workers -- either through pay or rest periods -- for “deemed work.” That refers to the time employees are required to remain available to deal with potential work demands.

McNaughton said Ontario’s changes will make it a legal requirement for workplaces to have a right-to-disconnect policy, but the details will be “tailored to each individual workplace.”

“It’s important that we have policies to protect family time, workers’ mental health and to just really make these lines clear between when people are working and when they should be on personal time.”

Asked how issues such as unpaid overtime will be tackled, McNaughton said people “deserve to be paid when they’re working” and said his government’s reforms are intended to “rebalance the scales to ensure that workers are protected.”

While technology has changed the volume and pace of e-communication in many sectors, some workers -- particularly those in app-based jobs -- have long said they struggle to disconnect because their earnings are too low to turn down work.

The Ministry of Labour is expected to announce gig economy reforms in the coming weeks, following a round of consultations this summer.

That process faced criticism for its short time frame, and prompted fears that the ministry would adopt recent proposals by Uber that would cement workers’ status as independent contractors -- a category of worker with no protection under labour laws.

But in an interview with the Star, McNaughton said has “made a conscious decision to go in a different direction” than the Uber proposal.

“The pandemic has just highlighted changes that need to be made for all workers to ensure bigger paycheques and better protections. We’re going to make some moves on that in the time ahead.”

Last week, the ministry announced a suite of other proposed reforms including a new vetting system for temporary help agencies, a bathroom mandate for delivery workers, and changes that would force regulators to drop Canadian work-experience requirements -- a key employment barrier for newcomers.

After booting the Liberals from power in 2018, the Conservative government reversed a number of labour protections including a scheduled minimum-wage increase, paid sick-day entitlements, and equal-pay measures for temp agency workers.

In a press conference last week, Peel region emergency physician and Decent Work and Health Network member Dr. Gaibrie Stephen called the consequences of those rollbacks “devastating” for vulnerable workers during the pandemic.

McNaughton said since assuming leadership of the ministry in 2019 he has “opened the door to labour,” and said the pandemic “highlighted challenges and weaknesses in the economy” that require action.

“I quite frankly don’t buy the outdated idea that a handful of wealthy people at the top have more to offer Ontario than the millions of workers who do an honest day’s work to build on tomorrow’s future.”