Work vs. Life: How to Unplug

Corrections or additions?

These articles by Kathleen McGinn Spring were prepared for the

April 18, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Laws Governing Time Off

Employees may be entitled to unpaid time off from work,

with no adverse consequences, because of their own illness or that

of a family member. Protected time away from the job may also be


for a number of other reasons, including disability, bereavement,

military service, jury duty, or religious observance. Steven


an attorney who runs the labor and employment law group for Buchanan

Ingersoll in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York City, says it

is amazing how many employers don’t understand their obligations —

and their rights — under state and federal laws governing time


Berlin, who earned his J.D. at Brooklyn Law School, is a 1977 graduate

of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland at College

Park. While he never worked as a journalist, Berlin says "the

tools are the same." Both law and reporting, he observes, entail

gathering facts and presenting information so that it achieves


impact. On Thursday, April 19, Berlin, along with colleagues Shacara

Boone and Beth Cole, speaks on "Time Off: state and federal

laws on employee leave, vacations, and holidays in New Jersey,"

in an all-day seminar beginning at 9 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott.

Cost: $209. It repeats Wednesday, April 25, at the Parsippany Holiday

Inn. Call 715-833-3959.

Knowledge of the laws governing protected leave can save employers

from exposing themselves to liability, and can also keep them from

agreeing to burdensome accommodations they are not required to make.

Buchanan Ingersoll is now winding up a case in which a major employer

ran into "very serious practical ramifications" when a worker

went out on leave. The business was not completely aware of the


rights, Berlin says, and did not use the law to minimize the amount

of time off and the consequent disruption to its operations. Berlin

says employers should be aware of the following nuances:

Many different laws govern protected leave. New Jersey

law and federal law governing absences from work are similar, but

not identical, Berlin says, adding that both are confusing. For


federal law allows employees to take leave "in the smallest


of time," while New Jersey law uses half a day as its minimum.

Both laws state the total amount of time off allowed in weeks, and

Berlin says it is no easy matter to calculate the end of a leave for

an employee who takes the time sporadically, and in increments that

can equal mere minutes in extreme cases. Factors to be taken into

consideration include the exact number of hours in an employee’s


work week.

In addition to keeping track of federal law and law in its own state,

employers need to be aware of where an employee requesting leave


Says Berlin: "If an employer in Pennsylvania has just one employee

in New Jersey, he could be required to comply with the New Jersey


Chronic illness may require special treatment. While some

illnesses are one-time situations, others, asthma for instance, may

be chronic conditions. The requirement for employees to obtain


for a doctor is different with a chronic condition, which might not

require documentation with each new incident. This can become a


for employers, says Berlin, because a worker may be able to call in

frequently and without notice, and say "`I won’t be in today,

I’m having an asthma attack,’" a claim the employer may not be

able to verify.

Protected leave can be triggered by a disability. While

many requests for unpaid time off arise from the birth or adoption

of a child, an illness, or a family medical crisis, employees with

disabilities may also request leaves. In those cases, Berlin says,

the employer may be required to grant the time off under the Americans

with Disabilities Act. The ADA states that employers need to make

reasonable attempts to accommodate a disability, and time off may

be such an accommodation. And while family leave laws limit the total

amount of time an employee may take, the ADA does not.

These are just some of the issues employers have to face. And

while situations differ, Berlin says an employer’s goal should always

be to "get the maximum you can from your human capital without

unnecessary liability."

Top Of Page
Work vs. Life: How to Unplug

Summer’s coming. Are you buying extra batteries for

your laptop so it won’t run out of juice in Yellowstone Park? You

might want to think twice, says Gil Gordon, a Monmouth


authority on telecommuting who has just written "Turn It Off:

How to Unplug from the Anytime-Anywhere Office without Disconnecting

Your Career."

Gordon speaks on re-establishing boundaries that separate work and

personal life on Saturday, April 21, at 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble on

Route 1 South in North Brunswick. Call 732-545-7966.

In the book, Gordon talks about how we have gotten ourselves tangled

in our own wireless web, and suggests strategies for working free.

Here is an excerpt:

None of us wakes up one day and decides, "I think I’ll give

up my free time on weekends, answer my pages during dinner with my

spouse, and carry my laptop on Vacation." Those intrusions of

work into our personal time result from a process of slow erosion,

not sudden upheaval. As employees, we ourselves have unwittingly


to that process and ended up stretching our workdays and workweeks.

One of the characteristics of office work up to the 1980s (and thus

before the deluge of technology) was the containment of most office

work within the office. Certainly, the briefcases came home, the


businessperson worked on the plane or in a hotel room, and the sales

rep caught up on paperwork in the car. But when far less office work

was as easily portable as it is today, the types of work that could

be packed into that briefcase were much more limited.

Employees who still had items on their to-do lists at 5 p.m. were

more likely to stay late in the office than to simply pack up the

briefcase and plan to finish everything after dinner. Briefcases


big enough to contain a file drawer’s worth of information, and there

was not easy way to look at a set of engineering drawings or a year’s

worth of budget printouts on the kitchen table. At-home evenings and

weekend work was mostly limited to reading, drafting memos and reports

on yellow pads, and grinding out budgets using a pocket calculator

— absolutely archaic activities by today’s standards.

If we fast-forward to the late 1990s, we can see that the limitations

on the kinds of work that could be done from afar disappeared almost

entirely. Looking for the sales reports from the last two quarters?

Just log on to the corporate network and download the files. Need

to get out a rush memo to the entire sales force? Draft it on your

laptop and upload it to the mail server, and it’s in the sales reps’

mailboxes in seconds. While every aspect of every job was not


enough were to enable most office workers to leave at a more desirable

hour, get home in time for dinner, and still be able to finish the

day’s work at home after having had at least a little time with the

spouse or family over the dinner table.

So far so good — until the point when those of us taking work

home slipped into some bad habits. The idea that came to us for the

new marketing campaign could now be sketched out on the laptop at

10 p.m.; instead of being hastily scribbled down on a note to be taken

into the office and worked on the next day. The budget planning that

was going on with the overseas offices could now be compressed from

weeks to days because global fax and E-mail meant that the morning

message sent from Tokyo could be read in the evening — a home

— by the financial analyst from the New York office, and so on.

. . . As the technology became more complex and more integral over

the years, it became evident to me how my technology-enabled work

was squeezing free time out of my life, and squeezing me out of my

family’s life. I became intrigued by how common these problems were

for others as well and started paying serious attention to work-life

boundary issues in the early 1990s. . .

This book isn’t meant to stir up a revolution against today’s portable

technology. Instead it’s meant to help you use and deal with that

technology more effectively in three ways.

1. Understand the role that mobile-office tools and


play in your life, and determine whether they might be hurting as

much as helping;

2. Decide how and where you want to begin drawing the

line between the part of your life that you’re willing to devote to

anytime/anywhere work, and the rest of your life that you’d rather

reserve for yourself;

3. Develop a customized plan for regaining control of

your use of these tools, and then discussing your plan and its


with your clients, managers, and co-workers — in a way that will

gain their cooperation.

We seem to be committed to a world of work in which "do

more with less — and do it faster" is the guiding principle.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the nonstop work made possible

by today’s technology is really good over the long term for you or

your customers and clients or your employer.

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