A new university study and the ever- increasing use of wireless devices, such as the BlackBerry, could result in a flood of lawsuits against employers for creating an allegedly dangerous environment where unpaid overwork is required for success, promotion, and job security, a leading law firm warns.
"Any sort of device that arguably significantly affects an employee outside the workplace could pose a tricky legal area for employers," said Frank C. Morris, Jr., an employment attorney at Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. representing employers.
Giving rise to possible claims, is a recent study by Gayle Porter, Associate Professor of Management at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which suggests possible liability for companies if they keep their employees on "electronic leashes" as part of their job requirements.
Porter theorizes employers may be responsible for supposed physical and psychological fallout that occurs due to what she called potential dependency.
"We could easily see the plaintiff's bar pursuing class claims. In light of possible claims involving dependency, stress related illnesses, carpal tunnel, and for overtime, companies need to be proactive to avert possible serious monetary consequences," said Morris.
The phenomenon of "workaholism," of course, is nothing new. In Japan, the theory of "karoshi," or death-by-overwork, has recently resulted in lawsuits seeking compensation by the deceased person's relatives. Some studies assert a link between the stress of constant labor to strokes, heart attacks, and mental illness.
"While a person simply carrying an employer-provided wireless device is not actually performing any duties, the argument plaintiffs' attorneys may make is the perception employees may have of being tied to the office is equally psychologically damaging," said Morris.
Morris noted many employees constantly check their BlackBerry without any employer requirement to do so. Some view it as a badge of status.
"It is important that companies who require their employees to stay wirelessly connected think about this subject," he says, "put appropriate policies in place and prepare for disgruntled employees or spouses claiming an invasion of their personal lives by technology."
The BlackBerry, developed by Research in Motion (RIM) in 1999, is a wireless handheld device with the capacity to check e-mail and surf the Internet. Its portability allows companies to disseminate information to roaming employees in real time.
Another issue for employers is whether an employee who is overtime- eligible under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act can claim time spent checking BlackBerry outside of normal work hours should be paid time.
"Doctors aren't the only ones who are expected to be on-call anymore, and we have yet to see how this will play out," said Morris. "The same steps employers can take to inoculate themselves against other employment claims still apply - it is merely a question of making smart human resources decisions and implementing them before things get out of hand."