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President Obama has proposed changes in the labor law that would expand the number of employees eligible for overtime pay. This long-awaited proposal would create many ripple effects for workers and employers. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports that one of them could have companies cutting down on email after hours.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: When Nicholas Castillo was hired as a bank branch manager several years ago, he was told his $30,000 salary came with expectations.
NICHOLAS CASTILLO: My manager had told me, you're on salary pay. And she says, basically, you are required to work more than the normal hours because you are on salary pay.
NOGUCHI: Castillo took this to heart, routinely working 50 or 60 hours a week without overtime pay. His wife grew to hate how often he checked his email on nights and weekends, when he was at dinner or the movies with his family.
CASTILLO: She would tell me, can you put your phone down, my God - you know, type of thing. I would say, Baby, I'm sorry, I have to do this real quick. You know, this is work. If I don't work then we don't get money. I have to do this.
And so it becomes one of those issues where you're like, OK, who do I disappoint? The one that pays me, or the one that, you know, I live with?
NOGUCHI: Under the current rule, most workers are no longer eligible for overtime when their salary exceeds $23,660 a year. The president's proposal would more than double that threshold to just over $50,000, and that would increase the number of workers eligible for overtime by about 5 million.
Lee Rainie is director of the Pew Research Center on Internet Science and Technology. He says the rules won't affect all workers in the same way. Raising the salary threshold might mean employers convert more of their salaried managers to hourly pay. And that, in turn, would mean those workers could start claiming overtime for checking email during off hours.
LEE RAINIE: Two thirds of all American adults have smartphones. 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.
NOGUCHI: Take California. A decade ago, the state adopted overtime rules similar to what President Obama is proposing federally. Brenda Rushforth heads human resources for Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. She says those changes to the state's rules prompted a clampdown at the private school.
BRENDA RUSHFORTH: We had to budget overtime in a more strict manner.
NOGUCHI: Pomona adopted an email policy limiting hourly workers' access to email.
RUSHFORTH: They're instructed to not download email to their personal devices, and they are not supposed to be on email after hours.
NOGUCHI: Is that to avoid the overtime pay issue?
RUSHFORTH: Yes, yes because here in California, even if you read the email, it doesn't mean you have to respond to it. Even if you've read it, now you're working.
NOGUCHI: Indeed, more companies are taking similar steps. Neil Boyd is a management professor at Bucknell University. He says the higher overtime salary threshold will prompt some large companies to shut down email servers. Others may simply ban their hourly staff from checking it during off hours.
NEIL BOYD: I think the No. 1 motivation is clearly going to be labor costs.
NOGUCHI: But, he says, an after-hours email ban could create logistical challenges for businesses as well.
BOYD: It's going to be difficult to monitor, I think, to some extent, what parts of the email are for business. Are there any, you know, kind of personal parts to this? It's going to create an interesting landscape, I think, to say the least.
NOGUCHI: Some companies that have already curved after hours email did so for reasons having nothing to do with overtime regulations. Dan Calista is CEO of Vynamic, a health care industry consultancy that adopted what it calls zmail. It shuts email down on weekends and between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weekdays. He says zmail now has its own rules and lingo.
DAN CALISTA: So a zbomb is a thought-provoking email that shows up at the last possible minute and is, you know, a terminology that we can say, hey, you sent me a zbomb there last night.
NOGUCHI: Calista says limiting email has also increased productivity and happiness because employees are just better rested. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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