Traveling for Work and Late-Night Emails

Traveling for work has its pros and cons.  I spent the last two weeks in sunny Santa Monica, California.  I was there to take multiple depositions in an expedited proceeding, which meant that I escaped my hotel room / conference room for a combined total of approximately 4 hours over a 14-day period.  In fact, I didn’t leave my hotel room or the conference room from which we were working at all until Day 4, when I took the extreme liberty of walking to the beach and back.  (Picture below).  I was out of the room for about 10 minutes-I didn’t even put my toes in the sand for fear that I’d never return to the room.

Two weeks felt like a long time to be away from home.  But it also felt like a long time to be away from my regular work routine.  In particular, my email Inbox expanded beyond my normal comfort level, as I prioritized the case that required my attention the most.Sunny Santa Monica

It wasn’t until late in the evening that I was able to make meager headway in responding to emails I’d received for other matters.  But, had it not been for those late-night (and, sometimes, very early morning) email binges, I would never have been able to get caught up upon my return.  I also would have had some very unhappy clients, who require their lawyer’s prompt attention to deal with emergency issues as they arise.

So I have to question the premise of a recent opinion piece in the NYT, titled, End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email.  The piece features companies, such as Daimler, the German automaker, that sets limits on when employees can send and receive emails.  According to the article, “limiting workplace email seems radical, but it’s a trend in Germany,” where some companies have “adopted policies that limit work-related email to some employees on evenings and weekends.”

On the one hand, putting technical barriers and/or policies in place that restrict certain employees can have its benefits.  In particular, it limits the risks associated with non-exempt employees who send emails during off-hours and who must be paid for that time as time worked.  But it also seems to have some less-than-ideal outcomes.  Specifically, as we move more and more towards a flexible work schedule in an increasingly mobile society, the ability to respond to emails when and where we want can be very important.  And limitations on that ability may not be all its cracked up to be.

Alas, the work-life balance continues to be more of a juggling act than a graceful performance on a balancing bar. Either way, it’s good to be home.

Advertisements

National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Earlier this month, the President proclaimed October 2012 National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). The observance is intended to raise awareness about disability employment issues and to celebrate the contributions of our country’s workers with disabilities. This year’s theme is “A Strong Workforce is an Inclusive Workforce: What Can YOU Do?”

In conjunction with NDEAM, he U.S. Department of Labor has launched an online Workplace Flexibility Toolkit to “provide employees, job seekers, employers, policymakers and researchers with information, resources and a unique approach to workplace flexibility.”

According to the U.S. DOL, the toolkit “points visitors to case studies, fact and tip sheets, issue briefs, reports, articles, websites with additional information, other related toolkits and a list of frequently asked questions. It is searchable by type of resource, target audience and types of workplace flexibility, including place, time and task.”

Employer Liability for Employee Injuries In the Company’s Gym

Health-and-wellness benefits are all the rage. Some employers offer their employees a discount on gym memberships. Some offer a monthly stipend to be used towards the fees at a health-club. And some have an on-site fitness center.

Employers who are considering building an on-site fitness center for employees commonly want to know how they can protect themselves against a personal-injury lawsuit. For example, an employee drops a dumbbell on his foot and breaks a toe. (Don’t laugh, people, broken toes are brutal!)

What’s to stop the employee from suing his employer for his injury? Assuming that lifting weights is not part of the employee’s job, it would not have been an injury incurred in the “course and scope” of his employment and, therefore, would not be covered by workers’ comp. And you, dear employer, own the equipment, including the dumbbell, so you’d surely be the first defendant to be named.

To avoid the “no-good-deed-goes-unpunished” phenomenon, employers will ask whether they can require employees to sign a waiver or release as a condition of using the fitness center. Until a few years ago, the answer was, “not really.” Of course, you could require that they sign a waiver but it would not be effective if you ever needed to use it because the law prohibited waivers of claims for future injury.

In 2008, in Slowe v. Pike Creek Court Club, the Delaware Superior Court held that such claims could be released but only if “the language makes it crystal clear and unequivocal that the parties specifically contemplated such a release.” In Slowe, the court held that the waiver at issue did not meet this “crystal-clear-and-unequivocal” standard and, consequently, the waiver was not effective, but left open the possibility that a “properly-worded release might effect a waiver of premises liability.”

In July, the court had the opportunity to address the issue again and, this time, found the waiver to be enforceable. In Hong v. Hockessin Athletic Club, the plaintiff, a member of the athletic club, signed a comprehensive waiver of liability and release in connection with her membership agreement. The waiver expressly stated that she and all others on her membership assumed the risk of “any injury or damage incurred while engaging in any physical exercise or activity or use of any club facility on the premises,” including the use of “any equipment in the facility.” The court held that this was sufficient to constitute a waiver in “crystal clear and unequivocal” terms and dismissed the suit.

There are no guarantees in life or in the law and this situation is no exception. Although this case offers employers some very good news when it comes to avoiding liability for on-site injury of employees and visitors, it is, of course, not a guarantee. Nevertheless, in light of this case, there seems to be no reason not to require a waiver for your on-site fitness center.

Hong v. Hockessin Athletic Club, No. N12C-05-004-PLA (Del. Super. July 18, 2012).

A Water Main Break, a Creek, and Other Work-From-Home Distractions

I’m working from home today but not by choice. Our office is quasi-closed today as a result a water main break just a few blocks away from our building in Wilmington, as shown in the video below by 6abc.

Of course, just because I can’t go to the office to work doesn’t mean I get to take the day off–the work still must be done. In the era of mobile computing and the paperless office, this does not present much of a technological challenge. I have ready access to everything I would have access to if I were sitting at my desk. Well, everything but my multiple-monitor computer set-up, I suppose.

But I digress. Which brings me back to my original point.

Working at home is hard. For me, anyway. I am too easily distracted. By the cat, who is as cute as can be and who just loves it when he’s got a lap to sit in, pesky laptop be damned. By the bonsai tree that could use a meticulous pruning. By my car, which is calling to me at this very moment, asking that I give her a nice wash, followed by a leisurely drive with the top down.

Blue Heron

By the view from my deck of the Brandywine Creek, which is as beautiful and serene as one might imagine a lazy creek to be on a clear day in June. Or the Great Blue Heron who, and I am not making this up, is perched on a rock, looking for lunch, at this very moment.

Or the rose garden at the end of my street, which is in full bloom and beautiful beyond belief.

I live in a park, people! It’s not my fault that I’m surrounded by all of these incredible distractions! Blame Mother Nature!

Josephine Rose Garden

But, again, I digress. The point that I am trying to get around to making is that, as a general rule, working from home really doesn’t work for me. At my desk, I’m a disciplined, focused, work-generating fool of a task-master. But at home, I find that I mostly just walk in circles.

Maybe I’ll read some news articles to help me find the working-from-home sweet spot. For example, the Top 10 Mistakes Everyone Makes When Working From Home on Forbes.com. Or How to Work From Home Without Losing Your Mind (or Your Job) by Ask a Manager’s Alison Green at US News’ On Careers blog. According to Attorney Marketing blog, 2% of lawyers work from home all of the time. And good for them–there are plenty of benefits of telecommuting for those who have the self-control to stay on task.

Or maybe I’ll just get back to work. Wish me luck and have a great Friday, wherever you may be today!

Working Families Flexibility Act Proposed in Senate

A law first proposed by the late Senator Ted Kennedy has been resurrected and introduced in the Senate by Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). The law mirrors legislation introduced in the House of Representatives in March 2009 which, to date, has gone  nowhere. Premised on the purported need of employees to have more flexible work options, it authorizes an employee to request from an employer a change in the terms or conditions of the employee’s employment if the request relates to: (1) the number of hours the employee is required to work; (2) the times when the employee is required to work; or   (3) where the employee is required to work.Juggle work and home with red hands

The proposal does not require the employer to grant any requests, but does set forth employer duties with respect to such requests, and makes it unlawful for an employer to interfere with any rights provided to an employee under the Act. Under regulations to be promulgated by the Secretary of Labor, an employer would have to hold a meeting with the requesting employee and give the employee a written decision on the request, discussing the reason for any rejection and addressing a prescribed list of possible explanations. An employee would be entitled to request reconsideration and the employer would be required to provide a written response to that request as well. In short, it would create an unnecessary paperwork nightmare.

The proposed law also authorizes an employee to file a complaint with the Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the Employment Standards Administration of the Department of Labor for any alleged violations of rights, and provides for the investigation and assessment of civil penalties or the award of relief for alleged violations.

The timing of its introduction suggests that S. 3840  is a political ploy. In view of the current mood of the populace, passage of the legislation is, to put it mildly, a longshot.

The Importance of Office Space

How important is office space to employees?  Very important, apparently, according to this article discussing a “summer office swap” conducted at a Boston-area advertising agency.  During the summer months at this forward-thinking firm, nearly every employee switches office space based on a lottery system.

There were a small number of managers with offices, and regardless of how high their pick was, they could not keep an office. However, who did get the office appeared to depend on an elaborate bartering system, which resulted in more lowly office types offering services such as babysitting, car washing, and coffee retrieval in exchange for a seat in a coveted manager office.clip_image002

The article is a good reminder of how important office space is to employees. More than a few employment discrimination lawsuits have been based, in part, on the office (or cubicle) an employee is assigned to.

In 2003, there was a Delaware case involving a plaintiff who filed a federal lawsuit which entailed, among other things, his objection to an office space “auction” at University of Delaware – where the best offices would go to the highest bidder and the money raised would go into a fund for use of the Department.

More recently, I had a case where among a plaintiff’s evidence of “retaliation,” were claims that she was given a “dirty, dusty cubical walls filled with dust mites.” And of course, who can forget the movie Office Space, and Milton, whose most prized possession was his Swingline stapler, and whose cubicle was continually moved until he was eventually wound up in a dimly lit basement among the boxes.

The legal profession is one of the last standouts where a good portion of the employees – lawyers and paralegals – typically have real offices with doors: associates have window offices, partners have bigger window offices, and paralegals have interior window-less offices. I know this is unusual for most of corporate America. But as the Boston Globe article illustrated, even among cubicles there is a hierarchy: those closest to the window, most shielded from foot traffic, etc.

Employers should keep in mind the importance of office space to employees, and what a difference small changes can make. In this era of layoffs and belt-tightening, there may be simple and relatively inexpensive ways to reward your employees and keep them happy: think about small ways their work environment can be improved. Many (indeed most) employers are not cut out for the “summer office swap” conducted by the Boston firm – if this was ever attempted in a law firm, I’m quite certain it would result in a revolt that would make the Pakistani lawyers revolt look tame. Nevertheless, consider what might work for your workplace: access to natural light, modest levels of privacy, can go a long way to build employee loyalty.

Utah’s Four-Day Workweek Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Utah was the first (and only) state in the U.S. to move to a mandatory four-day workweek.  Under the system, which was implemented by former Gov. Jon Huntsman in 2008, almost all state employees were converted to a schedule of four, 10-hour days per week.  As readers of this blog may recall, I have not been the biggest proponent of the four-day workweek.  See The Cons of a 4-Day Workweek.  

But not everyone agreed.  In fact, for a while, the compressed-week schedule was very, very popular and local governments around the country began to initiate pilot groups to test it.  These efforts were supported by announcements that the Utah program was generating lots of savings for the State and lauded as an official “success.” 

Well, as it turns out, Utah may have been wearing rose-colored glasses when it made the “success” determination, according to a recent audit. The State admitted that it had not seen the reduced energy costs that it had hoped for (realizing only about $500,000 in savings in the first year, as compared to the expected $3 million).  But the audit says it goes a bit deeper, finding that the State overestimated how much money it saved in saved overtime and other costs.  In fairness to the Utah program, though, employee surveys do indicate that employees prefer the four-day workweek, so there must be some supporters. 

Katie Keuhner-Herbert’s article on Human Resource Executive about the audit and the four-day workweek program in Utah. See Reassessing Four-Day WorkweeksThe article points out some of the flaws in the four-day workweek and pinpoints some sticking points for employers and employees alike.  (For purposes of full disclosure, I’m quoted in the article–but don’t let that deter you.)

See also

  • Positive Benefits of a Four-Day Work Week
  • 5 Steps Toward a More Flexible Workplace
  • Should a Four-Day Work Week Be Mandatory*
  • It’s Saturday Today in Utah: 4 Day Work Week
  • Alternatives to the Four Day Work Week
  • Popularity of the 4-day Week Continues to Grow
  • Will Four-Day School Week Push the Four-Day Work Week Trend?
  • Utah’s Mandatory 4-Day Work Week Will Save the World. Sort of.