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The right to disconnect from work is law in Ontario

Does that mean you can refuse to sleep with your smartphone?

There is no question that the pandemic accelerated working remotely. Almost a third of Ontario workers spent at least half of their time working from home, the highest percentage of any province in Canada. But with the benefits of working from home comes the blurring of the lines between work and family time.

Recognizing that problem, Ontario has become the first province in Canada to enact what it calls “right-to-disconnect” legislation.

It mandates that employers with 25 or more employees develop a written agreement for workers to disconnect after hours and on weekends. Employment lawyer Peter McSherry said, “With a written policy, everyone will know the ground rules and the expectations related to responding to calls from work.”

The policy could include expectations about the time it takes to respond to emails. It could be a directive that encourages employees to turn on out-of-office notifications when not working. It means talking about what the expectations are and establishing it as company policy. McSherry said, “It allows the employee to have a say in this policy by discussing it with their employer with some protection. The government is not trying to dictate to employers how to run their business, but they are giving the employee an opportunity to participate.”

Your boss’s emails can wait until morning

A lot of employees, especially those working remotely want right-to-disconnect policies. They want to be able to go to their child’s little league game without feeling a sense of guilt for not responding to emails from work. They want to enjoy a weekend with the family without being tied to their phone. They want to be able to work from home without feeling that they’re always on the clock. McSherry said, “A right-to-disconnect policy will set guideposts for this relationship so that it doesn’t become all-encompassing.”

With a written policy, everyone will know what the ground rules and expectations are related to responding to calls from work. If there is no policy, the Employment Standards Act does kick in on issues such as hours of work and paid holidays.

Facing discipline for following the rules

What if your boss expects instant communication regardless of the policy? What if an employee is disciplined for following the policy by ignoring a text message?

McSherry said, “There are consequences for not upholding the policy. The company can face a reprisal when they discipline people for behaving in a manner that’s consistent with the written policy. The employee can file a complaint on the grounds that discipline by the employer is a reprisal against the employee for exercising a right under the Employment Standards Act.”

If the company disciplines an employee for not doing something that is stated in the policy, they’ve created what is called “a greater right or benefit.” If the policy gives an employee a greater right or benefit than the terms of the ESA, then the provision applies to the employee instead of the employment standard. McSherry said, “If your boss breaches the policy, there will likely be reprisals. If your organization says to you that you have the right to not answer a phone after an appointed hour and then they terminate you for it, that would be a reprisal. And then you can potentially get reinstated.”

A company may have different policies for different employee classifications. Because obviously, if the building is on fire or the power is out, somebody in the organization may be called in the middle of the night. McSherry said, “You’re not required to have the same rules for every class of employee. But everybody’s going to have to think this through, and if a policy is developed, people are going to have to have a discussion.”

Developing a “right-to-disconnect” policy gives everyone an opportunity to talk about it. It establishes in writing the company’s true culture and it promotes a healthier work/life balance.

Contact Peter McSherry at (519) 821-5465 or visit: