Much ink is being spilled in relation to the Ontario government’s recent amendment of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (“ESA”), which made it mandatory for certain employers to implement a workplace policy addressing “Disconnecting from Work.”
There seems to be a growing notion among employees and employers, perhaps from media headlines, that Bill 27, which was passed on December 2, 2021, codified a worker’s right to disconnect.
Is that correct? Let’s review the changes.
How does the ESA define “disconnecting from work”?
In the ESA, the term is defined as follows: “not engaging in work-related communications, including emails, telephone calls, video calls, or sending or receiving other messages, so as to be free from the performance of work.” We should notice right away that the definition is broad; as a result, other forms of communications not specifically listed could be captured by this definition. We’ll get a better sense of what other than emails, phone calls, and video calls may be included in the future once legal decisions are released which interpret the relevant provisions of the ESA. The “other messages” would seem likely to be interpreted in the future to include text messages or messages on applications that allow for “chats,” such as Microsoft Teams.
What does the ESA require?
First, employers with 25 or more employees in Ontario on January 1 of any year are required to have a written policy on disconnecting from work.
Second, and this is perhaps the most surprising part for most people to hear, the requirement does not (as yet) require an employer to create a right for employees to disconnect from work and/or refuse to respond to work-related communications. I say “as yet” because the government may choose, in the future (perhaps soon), to amend the ESA’s regulations to implement more stringent restrictions on an employer’s ability to contact an employee after hours.
With that said – for now – the written policy must simply address “disconnecting from work,” include the date the policy was prepared, and the date any changes were made. Other than that, it appears that the employer is free to determine the content of the policy. So, contrary to popular opinion, as of today, there appears to be no substantive right to disconnect from work in Ontario.
Leaving aside whether it is mandatory, what should an employer include in their disconnecting from work policy?
Of course, this will depend heavily on the nature of the employer’s business. Obviously, the government is encouraging employers to reduce after-hours communications from the workplace. Some employees may want this and will want to receive some reassurance that they will have uninterrupted “off hours.” Some employers may wish to codify an employee’s right to disconnect, even if they are not currently required to do so to assist with employee retention, recruitment, or health.
Some questions to consider include:
- What kinds of after-hours communications are required from your business?
- Are there certain communications sent to employees after hours that need not be sent until later?
- Is it possible to distinguish between employees who are required to respond to communications and others who are not?
There will likely be other relevant questions for an employer to ask and consider. As I indicated above, it will be heavily dependent on the nature of the employer’s business.
Employers are required to deliver to their employees their first “Disconnecting from Work” policy by June 1, 2022, at the latest. All employers are encouraged to seek out independent legal advice if they have any questions related to this new requirement.
At Lerners LLP our lawyers have the experience and expertise to assist.