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'Right to disconnect' could be difficult to enforce: Saint John law partner

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What would a “right to disconnect” look like for Canadian workers? One law partner in Saint John, N.B., says it might be more complicated than putting cellphones on airplane mode at quitting time.

As part of the 2024 federal budget, the Canadian government is proposing amending the labour code so employees in federally-regulated fields would not have to answer work-related calls or emails outside of work hours.

Kelly VanBuskirk, a partner at Lawson Creamer in Saint John, told CTV News federally-regulated employees are people who work in broadcasting, banks, telecommunications, and the postal service, among other industries.

He noted other countries have implemented similar “right to disconnect” legislation, but Canada would have to determine its own approach to the policy.

“What looks to be the case in Canada is the government would amend the Canada Labour Code to require that employers would be responsible for creating policies that will dictate how employees could be entitled to disconnect from their workplace,” VanBuskirk said. “It looks like at this stage the legislation is just in its conceptual stage so it’s hard to know if there will be a significant amount of teeth in the legislation, but arguable it would require employers to say when you’re off duty, you don’t have to answer your work phone or your emails or any communications related to work.”

VanBuskirk said completely disconnecting for work communications could be a difficult task for certain professions that may require a certain degree of responsiveness for emergencies or breaking developments.

“If you’re a captain of a ship and you’re on your off hours in your berth and something goes wrong on your ship, does that mean you can’t be contacted?” he said. “If your job involves monitoring the safety of employees, if you’re off hours does that mean you can’t receive telephone calls or text messages about safety violations in the workplace?

“I think there are lots of holes in the concept that will have to be plugged before the concept works.”

VanBuskirk said the federal government could police a disconnect policy similarly to workplace harassment policies, which can present its own kind of challenges.

“That policing requires some reporting on an annual basis, but on a day-to-day basis it’s difficult to police these kinds of policies,” he said. “I’m not sure employees should be too excited just yet. I’m not sure this is something all employees will embrace, (and) secondly I’m not sure it’s the kind of concept that can be easily enforced.

“Because of the nature of the communications scheme we’ve allowed to develop, it’s pretty difficult to suggest employees can simply unplug and disconnect for some period of time each day.”

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