TIME Labor

Why This New McDonald’s Lawsuit Could Be Big Trouble for Fast Food

McDonald's
A sign for a McDonald's restaurant is seen in Times Square on June 9, 2014 in New York City. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

A new civil rights suit is holding McDonald's responsible for a franchise owner's actions

Former McDonalds workers filed a lawsuit Thursday that could put more responsibility on national restaurant chains for franchise owners’ actions.

The suit, filed in Virginia, alleges that a McDonald’s franchisee was acting in a racially motivated way when he fired several employees. But the workers are taking their grievances a step further by also suing McDonald’s national corporation, arguing the larger company is liable for the franchisee’s alleged actions.

The suit also comes just one month after the National Labor Relations Board took the unprecedented step of holding McDonald’s Corporation responsible as a “joint employer” for labor violations the agency says occurred at McDonald’s franchise locations. McDonalds is fighting the distinction.

Historically, national restaurant chains have been insulated from legal culpability for activities at franchised restaurants because the franchises are seen as independent businesses. This structure has been particularly useful in the last two years as fast food workers nationwide have gone on multiple one-day strikes demanding a $15 per hour living wage in coordinated, union-backed campaigns. By invoking its franchisees’ independence, McDonald’s doesn’t have to bargain with workers collectively or issue a wage increase that would affect all workers at once.

But Thursday’s lawsuit argues that McDonald’s franchises are “predominately controlled” by their corporate parent, as McDonald’s sets national policies for restaurant operations, corporate representatives oversee franchises and the national company coordinates training for all managerial employees. An operational manual issued to franchise owners specifically outlines a “zero tolerance” policy for discrimination, as well as a mandate against workplace remarks that demean individuals because of their race, sex or religion, according to the suit.

The ten workers involved in Thursday’s suit, all either black or Hispanic, claim their managers consistently addressed them in derogatory ways, calling them “ghetto,” “ratchet,” or “dirty Mexican.” Several female employees also say they were victims of sexual harassment that included being touched inappropriately and being sent unwanted explicit photos. The workers ultimately argue they were terminated from their jobs because the store owner wanted to increase the ratio of white employees to minority ones — supervisors said they needed “to get the ghetto out of the store,” according to the lawsuit.

The McDonald’s restaurants involved in the lawsuit are run by Soweva Corporation, a company owned by franchisee Michael Simon. However, Paul Smith, the plaintiffs’ legal counsel, says McDonald’s Corporation “could have put policies in place to stop what the plaintiffs endured.”

“We believe that McDonald’s Corporation controlled nearly every aspect of the store’s operations,” Smith said on a press call with reporters Thursday.

Soweva Corporation did not return a call seeking comment. In an emailed statement, a McDonald’s spokeswoman said the company had not seen the lawsuit, but planned to review it carefully.

“McDonald’s has a long-standing history of embracing the diversity of employees, independent Franchisees, customers and suppliers, and discrimination is completely inconsistent with our values,” the statement read. “McDonald’s and our independent owner-operators share a commitment to the well-being and fair treatment of all people who work in McDonald’s restaurants.”

Dave Sherwyn, a law professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, says more cases are likely to emerge that try to hold corporate chains responsible for the actions of franchisees. This is the tip of the iceberg,” Sherwyn says. “The next step is going to be in discrimination litigation and wage and hour litigation.”

 

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 22

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Want to improve your bottom line? Diversify your workplace.

By Joann S. Lublin in the Wall Street Journal

2. Journalism shouldn’t be a transaction for communities. A local news lab can make it transformational.

By Josh Stearns in Medium

3. The spike of hysteria about artificial intelligence could threaten valuable research.

By Erik Sofge in Popular Science

4. A new vision for securing work and protecting jobs can ensure stability in the face of rising automation.

By Guy Ryder at the World Economic Forum

5. Purchasing carbon offsets is easy. With carbon ‘insetting,’ a business folds sustainable decisions into the supply chain.

By Tim Smedley in the Guardian

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Opinion

History Shows How 2 Million Workers Lost Rights

US-LABOR-PROTEST-WAGE
Fast food workers, healthcare workers and their supporters march to demand an increase of the minimum wage, in Los Angeles on Dec. 4, 2014 Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

Home attendants and aides have historically been singled out for denial of basic labor rights

Over the last year, the nation has seen a tumultuous wave of low-wage workers contesting terms of employment that perpetually leave them impoverished and economically insecure. It’s a fight in which home-care workers—one of the fastest growing labor forces—have long participated, as home attendants and aides have historically been singled out for denial of basic labor rights. Their work is becoming ever more important in our economy, with over 40 million elderly Americans today and baby boomers aging into their 70s and 80s; the demand for such workers is projected to nearly double over the next seven years. And yet, this week a federal judge is likely to put up just the latest obstacle to their receiving the minimum wage and overtime compensation granted to other workers through the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The story of how home-care workers ended up without rights begins in the Great Depression. Home care first originated as a distinct occupation during the New Deal, and evolved after World War II as part of welfare and health policy aimed at developing alternatives to institutionalization of the elderly and people with disabilities. Prior to the mid-1970s, public agencies provided or coordinated homemaker and home-attendant services. Fiscal constraints subsequently led state and local governments to contract home care first to non-profit and later to for-profit agencies. In 1974, Congress extended FLSA wage and hour standards to long-excluded private household workers. A year later, however, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) interpreted the new amendment to exempt home-care workers, even employees of for-profit entities, by misclassifying them as elder companions, akin to babysitters. It provided no explicit reasoning for introducing this new terminology, beyond the need for uniform definitions of domestic service and employer. This exclusion became known as the “companionship rule.”

The rule was a boon for employers. Amid nursing-home scandals and an emergent disability-rights movement, demand for home-based care burgeoned, but the women actually performing the labor were invisible. A distinct home-health industry began to grow following the 1975 exemption, as the rule freed staffing and home-health agencies from paying minimum wages and overtime. Opening Medicaid and other programs to for-profit providers after 1980 led to a tenfold increase in for-profit agencies during the next half decade. By 2000, for-profit groups employed over 60 per cent of all workers. Today, the home franchise industry is worth $90 billion.

Care workers, however, were never just casual friendly neighbors; even before this expansion, home-care workers were middle-aged, disproportionately African American, female wage earners—neither nurse nor maid, but a combination of both. Despite changes in their title since the 1930s, these workers always performed a combination of bodily care work (bathing, dressing, feeding) and housekeeping necessary to maintain someone at home. They increasingly have become a trained workforce.

With the expansion of the industry, service sector unions and domestic worker associations lobbied to change the “companionship rule.” Recently, they seemed to have won: After extensive public comment, the DOL issued a new rule in September of 2013, which would have finally included home-care workers under FLSA coverage. The Obama Administration also updated the definition of domestic service to match the job as performed by nearly 2 million workers who belong to one of the fastest growing, but lowest paid, occupations, with median hourly wages under $10. It recognized aid with activities of daily living as care, and care as a form of domestic labor. Whereas companionship services had previously included even those who spent more than 20 hours engaged in care, the new rule narrowed the meaning of companionship to mere “fellowship and protection” in order to close the loophole that for-profit agencies were deploying to profit by underpaying live-in home attendants. It was to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, though enforcement was delayed until June.

Then, in late December, at the urging of for-profit home care franchise operators, led by the Home Care Association of America, Judge Richard J. Leon (a George W. Bush appointee) of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia struck down a key element of the revision. The decision vacated the responsibility of third-party employers (such as home-care businesses) to pay minimum wage and overtime for so-called companionship services. In his opinion, the judge charged the DOL with “arrogance,” “unprecedented authority” and “a wholesale abrogation of Congress’s authority in this area.”

A historical perspective suggests otherwise. In the 1970s, Congress never intended to enhance corporate profits by narrowing wage and hour protections; to the contrary, it expanded them. Granted, the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare refused “to include within the terms ‘domestic service’ such activities as babysitting and acting as a companion”—but it distinguished teenage sitters and friendly visitors from domestic workers by adding “casual” to those exempted from labor standards. It explicitly did not refer to “regular breadwinners,” those “responsible for their families.” Moreover, the Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed the supposition that where Congressional intent is ambiguous, executive agencies—including the DOL—have leeway. In the 2007 case Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, a unanimous Supreme Court commended the expertise of the agency to determine the meaning of undefined phrases like “domestic service employment” and “companionship services.”

During oral argument in Coke, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg suggested that the proper way to amend the exemption was either a new rule through the DOL, which is what ended up happening, or legislation. Judge Leon reads back Congressional intent from the fact that legislative fixes have stalled in committee in the years following Coke. But there are many reasons why bills go nowhere in our gridlocked government.

The temporary restraining order from Judge Leon effectively blocked implementation of the new DOL rule in totality, setting off a ripple effect against this primarily female workforce. California, for example, instantly suspended implementation for some 80,000 workers. Then on Jan. 9, he heard oral arguments on whether to strike down the redefinition of the companionship classification. Given his prior decisions, the bet is that his next ruling on Jan. 14 will do so. Continuous litigation is in the offering, as the DOL is likely to appeal his decisions all the way to the Supreme Court.

For over 40 years, we’ve relied on cheap labor for care. The structure of home-care has exemplified a broader trend of reconfiguring work throughout the economy as casualized and low-waged, outside of labor standards and immune from unionization. But stopping the correction of this injustice means distorting history—and devaluing the care that someday most of us will need.

Eileen Boris is Hull Professor of Feminist Studies and Professor of History, Black Studies, and Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Jennifer Klein is Professor of History at Yale and a Public Voices Fellow. They are the authors of Caring For America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State.

TIME Economy

Unemployment Rate Drops to 5.6% as Employers Add 252,000 Jobs

Pedestrians walk by a now hiring sign posted in the window of a business on Nov. 7, 2014 in San Rafael, Calif.
Pedestrians walk by a now hiring sign posted in the window of a business on Nov. 7, 2014 in San Rafael, Calif. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

December marked the 11th straight month of payroll increases above 200,000

U.S. job growth remained brisk in December, with employers adding 252,000 jobs to their payrolls after November’s outsized increase. The nation’s unemployment rate fell to 5.6% from November’s 5.8%.

December marked the 11th straight month of payroll increases above 200,000, the longest stretch since 1994. With a revised 353,000 jump in November, and October’s count also revised higher, the economy created 50,000 more jobs than previously reported in the prior two months.

“The U.S. is sort of an island of relative strength in a pretty choppy global sea. People are worried the problems abroad could afflict the U.S., but our domestic fundamentals are pretty sound and should outweigh that,” said Josh Feinman, chief global economist at Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management in New York.

December’s gains capped a strong year for hiring. With another job creation number over 200,000, employment gains for 2014 at around 3 million — the largest since 1999.

A five cent drop in average hourly earnings after rising six cents in November, took some shine off the report.

Wage growth has been frustratingly tepid and economists believe the Federal Reserve will be hesitant to pull the trigger on raising interest rates without a significant increase in labor costs.

The U.S. central bank has kept its short-term interest rate near zero since December 2008. It has not raised interest rates since 2006, but recently signaled it was moving closer to hiking, even if inflation remains below the Fed’s 2.0 percent target. Most economists expect the first rate increase in June.

But an acceleration in wage gains is in the cards as the labor market continues to tighten.

That, together with lower gasoline prices are expected to provide a tail wind to consumer spending this year.

“As the labor market moves closer to full employment … we are likely to see firms increase wages. We have already started to see some of that,” said Sam Bullard, a senior economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Most of the measures tracked by Fed Chair Janet Yellen to gauge the amount of slack in the labor market have pointed to tightening conditions and would be again under scrutiny.

A broad measure of joblessness that includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment is at six-year lows, the labor force appears to have stabilized, while the ranks of the long-term unemployed are also shrinking.

—Reuters contributed to this report

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Companies

The Biggest Problem American Business Is Facing in 2015

TIME.com stock photos Money Dollar Bills
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

In order to remain competitive on the world stage, America’s top companies need to take the lead in addressing economic inequality

As 2015 progresses, an improving U.S. economy should buoy markets and provide hope for the business sector. However, before we pop the champagne, it is worth remembering that the past year has also been a turbulent one. Economic inequality continues to widen and worker strikes, once rare, are now increasing in frequency.

The reality is that despite gains in profitability and shareholder value, American businesses could experience a serious labor problem in the near future, and the sooner it is addressed it, the better.

Broadly speaking, there are three factors working against the U.S. right now. The first is an aging population, which not only threatens to burden the system with greater costs in terms of social benefits and pensions, but also a shortage of younger people to fill jobs. Exacerbating this is the fact that the working age population in the future, composed of millennials (and their successors) will require better work benefits, including flexible schedules, higher pay, and room for creativity, in order to feel motivated – a phenomenon that will make it more difficult for companies to secure and retain talent.

By contrast, China and India have vast untapped labor pools, and 65% of India’s population is currently 35 or under, ensuring a young and dynamic labor force for decades to come. This has historically benefited the U.S. through cheap labor, but that could change as these economies become stronger and wage levels rise in response. In addition, Chinese and Indian companies have themselves begun to compete aggressively in the global arena with the workforce behind them to support it, which could put their American counterparts at a disadvantage.

The combination of these factors and a growing perception amongst low and middle income workers of economic unfairness could lead to a crisis of worker availability and competitiveness for U.S. companies within the next few decades unless employers can reach a balance between profitability and compensation that will motivate workers. This is particularly important in the arenas of fast food and retail, which require a large labor force but where wage levels are typically low and a source of escalating friction between companies and their employees, but could effect other sectors as well.

Unfortunately, we keep looking towards the government for a solution, which is a mistake. In today’s hyper-partisan environment of Capitol Hill, compromise on a politically charged issue like wages on which Democrats and Republicans fundamentally disagree is nearly impossible. Moreover, the idea of taxing our way to economic equality, advanced by economists like Thomas Piketty and even Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is unrealistic. Even if it was politically feasible, additional taxation would do little to bridge the gap between employers and workers.

That can only be accomplished by a concerted effort to understand and address the needs of workers by companies themselves, and requires the participation of our most influential business leaders.

For too long, the debate over fair wages has remained stuck in the quagmire of ideology (on both sides), but what is really required is the recognition by the CEOs who run our major corporations of the direct link between worker compensation and the future profitability of their businesses. The reason this is so critical is that our biggest companies set wage levels in their sectors and so only through their participation can a true market-driven solution be found to this pressing problem.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, at hedge fund Ramius Capital, and has an MBA from Columbia Business School. Follow him on Twitter @sanghoee

TIME politics

Elizabeth Warren and the AFL-CIO: A Match Made in History

Mar. 21, 1955, cover of TIME
The Mar. 21, 1955, cover of TIME Cover Credit: BORIS CHALIAPIN

Senator Warren will address an American labor movement seeking a renaissance

When Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts delivers a keynote address on Wednesday at the AFL-CIO’s National Summit on Wages, she will speak to an organization whose vision has long outgrown its influence. Membership in the AFL-CIO, the United States’ largest federation of labor unions, has waned over the years. And as collective bargaining has lost much of its clout, so has the biggest coalition that represents workers.

But when the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations joined its 15 million members into a super union coalition 60 years ago, they became one of the most powerful organizations in the United States. TIME dedicated its Mar. 21, 1955 cover to George Meany, the man minted president of the AFL-CIO that year. He was a cigar-smoking plumber who rose to prominence within the unions, carrying a $35,000 annual paycheck (over $300,000 today) and a taste for French wines. In the 1950s, a long history of union victories—the eight-hour workday, and old-age and illness protections—gave the AFL-CIO a prominence in American society that has mostly dissipated today.

Meany told TIME about a gathering of supporters of his father’s union, the plumbers’ local:

“I can remember little groups of people coming to our home on a Sunday afternoon,” George recalls. “There were no movies in those days and not many automobiles around, and people visited one another on Sunday, and practically all of the visitors who came to my home were officers and members of the union.

“I can remember these men talking about something known as ‘the organization,’ and I may say to you that they did not pronounce it that way, they called it the ‘organ-eye-zation.’ But I can remember the reverence in which they used the term, and inculcated into my mind at that time was the thought that whatever the organization was, it was something with these men almost on a par with religion. I grew up with faith in the trade-union movement.”

Labors’ political successes in the U.S. distinguished the movement in the western world. TIME recounted an exchange between Meany and a British counterpart:

George Meany summed up the American success a few years ago in Britain, when a British trade-unionist who was also a member of the Labor Party asked him: “When are you Yanks going to wake up and form a political party?” Meany floored him with a proud reply: “When collective bargaining yields as little for us as it does for you, we may have to form a political party.”

Despite the unions’ challenges today—and Meany’s forecast—the U.S. doesn’t have a labor party. But labor does have allies.

Enter Senator Warren. This week’s summit will focus on raising wages rather than collective bargaining, as a growing movement of fast-food workers have called for a minimum living wage of $15 per hour; 29 states, from Washington to Connecticut, have raised their minimum wages above the federal minimum. Senator Warren has been one of the loudest voices in favor. “Things are getting better, yes, but only for some,” Warren told TIME’s Rana Faroohar in an interview. “Families are working harder, but not doing better. And they feel the game is rigged against them–and guess what–it is!”

Though American labor doesn’t have a party in 2015, it does have growing political support—something George Meany would probably have approved of.

TIME Retail

Inside Starbucks’ Radical New Plan for Luxury Lattes

An employee pours milk into a cardboard coffee cup inside a Starbucks Corp. coffee shop in London on June 9, 2014.
An employee pours milk into a cardboard coffee cup inside a Starbucks Corp. coffee shop in London on June 9, 2014. Bloomberg/Getty Images

Your Starbucks is about to change radically—get ready for $6 coffee

If there is a retail proxy for America, it must be Starbucks. The company has 12,000 stores in the US, doing 47 million transactions per week, serving 70 million unique customers. One in eight people found a Starbucks card in their Christmas stocking last year. So when Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz says something about consumers, people tend to listen. (Indeed, everyone from President Obama to the heads of major investment banks have been known to ring him for a cup by cup read on the state of the economy.)

At the company’s biannual investor conference this week, Schultz gave his take on the state of the recovery in the US. While Schultz is bullish, laying out some robust growth targets for his company, he also said, “We are living at a time when the world is very fragile, and that effects consumer confidence.” Just like the overall economy, Starbucks is bifurcated—stores in some affluent cities are doing more business than ever, while others have yet to spring back from the last several years of crisis and recession.

What’s more, the way people are shopping is changing profoundly. According to Schultz, the “seismic shift” in consumer spending from bricks and mortar retail outlets to online shopping that the company first noted last year has become “a tidal wave.” That’s going to change the entire nature of retail and public spaces. As Schultz put it, “I wouldn’t want to be a mall operator five to ten years from today,” referencing the fact that foot traffic in malls and in Main Street shopping areas throughout the country is way down from last year.

The problem is, that’s where most Starbucks today are located. Solution: a whole new approach to stores that mirrors this new economy. Just as fashion brands have “haute” couture and mass market lines, Starbucks will now have luxury “reserve” stores, and many more express kiosks, mobile coffee trucks and all kinds of specialized retail outlets purpose built for specific spaces. Think luxe roadside coffee pit-stops, or “hammerhead” shaped drive through outlets made out of used cargo containers that will sit in the entrance to highways or on small silvers of land near a bowling alley or another local attraction.

The idea will be to make Starbucks a destination in and of itself, one that’s not so dependent on foot traffic. “People are still longing for connection, and a sense of community, perhaps more so now that they are spending more time at their computers, or working from home,” says Schultz. But in order to preserve the “third place,” Schultz says the company will increasingly have to offer “experience, rather than just a product.”

On Dec. 5, Schultz debuted part of the new strategy—his first flagship “Roastery,” a 15,000 square foot space in Capitol Hill, Seattle that is both a coffee roasting facility, and a consumer retail outlet. The place is to coffee what FAO Schwartz is to toys or Dover Street Market is to fashion—retail theatre. You can watch beans being roasted, talk to master grinders, have your drink brewed in front of you in multiple ways, lounge in a coffee library, order a selection of gourmet brews and locally prepared foods. (The entire store is crafted from Made in America materials, by regional artisans.) The architecture says “niche” not mass, as does the merchandise—copies of the New Yorker are scattered alongside top of the line espresso machines and bags of reserve beans marked with their crop year.

Schultz calls it his “Willy Wonka factory of coffee,” and it speaks to the fact that in retail, as in nearly every aspect of the economy these days, there seems to be two directions—up, or down. At the Roastery, a latte made from beans cut and roasted in front of you only minutes before can cost more than $6 bucks. And the truth is that they could probably charge a lot more. There’s little price sensitivity for the upscale consumer these stores—and the smaller “Reserve” stores inspired by the flagship, which will be coming to a town near you in 2015—will target.

In America these days, there are two kinds of people: those that can buy lattes, and those who make them. Schultz is endeavoring to change both their lives.

Read next: How to Win Free Starbucks for Life

TIME Labor

Convenience Store Employees Join Fast Food Workers in New Strikes

McDonald's Workers, Activists Protest McDonald's Labor Practices
Women hold banners during a protest for higher wages for fast food workers on March 18, 2014 in New York City. Andrew Burton--Getty Images

Protests expected to reach 190 cities

Fast food workers’ campaign for better pay continues to spread.

Workers in hundreds of cities once again walked off the job Thursday, organizing protests advocating for a $15 per hour living wage and the right to unionize.

Fast food workers have gone on similar strikes several times in the past two years, but this time they were joined by convenience store workers from retailers like Big Lots and Dollar Tree in some cities. Organizers said strikes and protests hit 190 cities in total.

The strikes, backed by the Service Employees International Union, began two years ago at a few fast food restaurants in New York and have been growing ever since. So far, fast-food chains themselves haven’t given higher wages to workers in any widespread manner, instead maintaining that they offer competitive pay and benefits.

But the political effect of the strikes seems to be growing. President Barack Obama has acknowledged fast food workers’ plight in his campaign to push the federal minimum wage to $10.10, and dozens of cities and states have boosted their minimum wages. Two cities, Seattle and San Francisco, have even pledged to raise their minimum wages all the way to $15.

TIME France

France Considers Scrapping Its 35-Hour Working Week

The French 35-hour working week might be under threat in light of the country's economic woes

France has long had the reputation of taking a lax approach to working life. But now, the New York Times reports that the country is reconsidering the official 35-hour working week amid reports that the policy is abused by employers and creating financial hardships for employees.

The shorter working week was implemented in 2000 by the then-Socialist government as a way to stimulate job creation. But according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, French employees work an average of 39.5 hours per week, just shy of the eurozone average of 40.9 hours per week. According to the Times, the shorter working week hasn’t kept unemployment down — which is at 10.2 percent in France — and might even have led to the rise in part-time contracts, which employers increasingly use to avoid having to pay full-time staff overtime.

[NYT]

TIME work

Why You Should Embrace Late-Night Work Email

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Luis Alvarez—Getty Images

Why being constantly “on” at work is as liberating as it is confining

Eight hours to work. Eight hours to play. Eight hours to sleep.

In the early 19th century, Welsh reformer Robert Owen declared this as the ideal division of a 24-hour day and we workers of the world have been fighting for it ever since.

But in our ever more connected lives the old barriers between work and personal life are increasingly fuzzy. The smartphones in our pockets ding and buzz with messages from our workplaces late into the night, making the notion of eight hours of uninterrupted recreation seem very quaint indeed. Smartphone-dependent professionals are justifiably worried about where this road leads. In Germany, policymakers are toying with the idea of an outright ban on contacting employees after the official workday is over.

Never fear, humanity. The smartphone will set you free. Here’s why.

(MORE: 9 Rules For Emailing From Google Exec Eric Schmidt)

Robert Owen, and other labor activists who fought and died for the right to leave work at a reasonable hour, were responding to a world rapidly changing from one of independent contractors (farmers, artisans, etc.) to one of wage-earning employees. You went to work at a factory or an office where you worked under the watchful eye of a floor boss or a manager. You sold your labor away in large blocks of time during which you were not, for all intents and purposes, free. Today, we’re headed in a different, and altogether better, direction.

The workplace today is becoming increasingly flexible, which is to say that workers today, in the developed world, are increasingly free. You see it in the rise of telecommuting and of the flexible workday. Today, 34% of the U.S. workforce are freelancers, according to a recent survey from the Freelancer’s Union. We’re heading in the direction of a labor force that is increasingly free to move freely and to divide up their time in a way prioritizes their own goals and schedules, to run a midday errand or spend time at home with the family even on a late work night. The smartphone and the era of constant connectivity is what makes that freer world possible.

(MORE: Germans Say “Nein!” to Late-Night Work Email. Here’s How You Can, Too)

That’s a good thing and most workers in the U.S. agree. In a Gallup poll earlier this year, 79% of workers said having the ability to connect with work remotely using a computer or a smartphone or the like was a positive development.

As in an earlier era that needed new laws to protect the rights of factory workers, it may be that today’s changing workplace demands new laws of its own. Today’s always-on workplace can morph into a monster if unchecked and freer workers will need to be willing to say no sometimes and just turn off the phone. As in all things, with freedom comes responsibility — and that includes responsibly maintaining your all important email account. The difference is that today’s freer workers are freer to do that than in eras past.

Robert Owen’s prescription for the good life, eight-hours for work, play and sleep, still seems a useful framework. The only thing really different today is that we’re freer to divide up those eight hour blocks than before.

(MORE: Here’s a Radical Way to End Vacation Email Overload)

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