Union hung up on BlackBerrys

PSAC wants clear expectations on off-hours use of device
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/04/2009

A manager expecting an employee to reply to an e-mail on her BlackBerry at 11 p.m. had better start paying for the employee’s availability, said the union representing federal public sector employees.

With seven bargaining units currently in contract negotiations, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) said it wants to change two collective agreement provisions in an effort to curb widespread BlackBerry use within the bureaucracy.

“E-mails are being sent at all hours, day and night. If people get them, if the BlackBerry is sitting on your dresser when it goes off, it’s going to wake you up. And often, you feel you have to respond to it right away,” said Maria Fitzpatrick, the incoming regional executive vice-president for PSAC’s national capital region.

Ed Cashman, the outgoing regional executive vice-president for PSAC, said he couldn’t quantify how prevalent BlackBerrys are, just that, like in the private sector, “everybody’s got one, particularly among managers.”

The problem is there has been no discussion across the federal Treasury Board about what the expectations are when employees get a BlackBerry, said Cashman. The union wants to update the clauses in the collective agreement that deal with call back and standby, he said.

When an employee is called back into the office, he is paid for four hours minimum to make up for the inconvenience of having to leave home, travel to the office and then home again. These days, an employee can do work without having to leave home and most times they’re not compensated for the inconvenience, said Cashman.

Similarly, the standby clause was created at a time when, if the boss asked an employee to wait around for a development expected that weekend, she would have to stand by the phone. Today, the person could run errands or go to her son’s game, but she might not be able to go to the golf course or the cottage if those places are out of cellphone range, said Fitzpatrick.

“It is our intention to make the cost prohibitive so that an employer would stop doing that. It’s our experience that when employers have to pay something, they regulate their behaviour,” said Cashman.

PSAC isn’t the only party to have voiced concerns in Canada over excessive off-hours BlackBerry use. In November, an auditor’s report conducted for Natural Resources Canada found employees in the department were using 900 BlackBerrys and 720 cellphones. According to the Canadian Press, which obtained the report, 20 per cent of the devices were given out to employees who had no work-related reasons for having them.

“There are no policies, guidelines and procedures for voice telecommunications devices and service plans,” the report stated. “Comprehensive corporate directives for the management and control of voice telecommunications do not exist.”

In another federal department, a deputy minister issued a memo asking employees to implement a “blackout” on BlackBerrys between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and on weekends and holidays.

“Work-life quality is a priority for me and this organization because achieving it benefits us both as individuals and as a department,” Citizenship and Immigration Canada deputy minister Richard Fadden reportedly wrote in the memo. “When we can ‘balance’ our work and personal responsibilities, we, as a team, stand to not only serve and perform more effectively, but also to attract and keep employees to help us build a stronger Canada.”

In the United States, where lawsuits over overtime are more common, legal observers have been warning of oncoming litigation over off-hour BlackBerry use.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the U.S., it isn’t a defence to claim the employer didn’t require the employee to do the extra work, wrote lawyers Jeffrey Schlossberg and Kimberly Malerba last year in a

New York Law Journal

article. If the employer knows the work is being performed, it must count the time as hours worked, stated the article.

Blackberrys Down Under

Australians study mobile usage

A union representing more than 130,000 employees in Australia has launched a research initiative to examine the impact of BlackBerrys on the workday as part of a report on remote access technology and broadband Internet.

The Australian Workers Union report, due later this year, could form the basis of a campaign for compensation for workers who use BlackBerrys.

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