- Issue 4 - July 2019, Volume 46

Hybrid Federalism and the Employee Right to Disconnect

Article by: Paul M. Secunda

46 PEPP. L. REV. 875 (2019)

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) administers specific workplace and health standards that generally and expressly preempt the entire field of workplace safety and health law. However, where such federal OSHA standards do not exist or states have developed their own approved OSHA plans, OSHA does not merely set a regulatory floor either. A type of “hybrid federalism” has been established, meaning a strong federal-based field preemption approach to labor and employment law issues, but tied to a conflict preemption approach. Applying this hybrid preemption approach to the employee right to disconnect problem provides the best opportunity to address the growing epidemic of overwork through electronic communications in the United States.

This hybrid approach has two essential characteristics under OSHA. First, as a default standard, a federal general duty clause that requires all covered employers to maintain a workplace free of hazards that may cause serious injury or death and cannot be feasibly abated. Second, OSHA also has promulgated specific workplace safety and health standard over the last five decades that set more detailed and specific requirements for numerous health or safety dangers in the workplace. The specific standards occupy the field and all contrary state or local safety and health regulations are preempted. Yet, employers can still seek a permanent variance from any OSHA standard if they can establish that they have another method to achieve the same goal as the permanent standard. Second, the OSHAct also permits states to develop their own plans and submit them for approval to OSHA. Twenty-seven states have taken advantage of this option to one degree or another and have plans approved by OSHA. While these state-approved plans must be “at least as effective” as the federal OSHAct, some states, like California and Virginia, have been more aggressive in regulation and have regulated areas that the federal OSHAct has not. This Article maintains that a combination of general duty clause federal enforcement and individual state enforcement is the most effective way of providing a broad-based right to disconnect standard until a federal permanent OSHA standard can be promulgated.

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