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Locking up cell phones at work

My boss thinks that we are “addicted” to texting and using cell phones at work. She told me, “While you are at work, you are being paid to work for the business. You are not being paid to use your cell phone.”

A few weeks ago, she installed little lockers for us to lock up our phones while at work. We’re allowed to take our phones out during breaks, meal periods, and before and after work. We each have a key to our own lockers. I’m not the one who caused this policy to happen, and I don’t feel like I should be punished for a problem I didn’t create.

Is this legal?

Employers often impose cell phone/wireless device policies, but usually the policy’s purpose is to prohibit employees from using cell phones while driving. It’s against the law to drive a motor vehicle while using an electronic wireless communications device to write, send, or read a text-based communication and employers have an interest in minimizing any avoidable liability.

However, prohibiting employees from using their cell phones at work because it disrupts work is a different matter.

Using your cell phone is a privilege, not a right, and employers may impose limits on phone use, including complete bans where appropriate. Your boss has a legitimate interest in minimizing wasted company time.

If you’re an employer considering this sort of policy, the policy should be clear, uniform, and in writing. Your employees may need to maintain contact with their family members in case of emergencies, so you may want to permit family members to call the business line directly if there’s an urgent need. Similarly, your employees should be allowed to contact family members if necessary.

The key is to clearly define what constitutes an “emergency,” as opposed to the need to update your Facebook status. Instead of having a written policy, you may want to begin with a verbal instruction that employees keep their phone on vibrate, rather than a disruptive ring while at work, and require calls to be placed outside.

If texting, games, personal email, or Internet surfing are legitimate issues, be clear in your policy that those activities are not allowed at work.

The policy should clearly describe what happens if someone violates the policy. It’s important to enforce the policy uniformly—don’t ignore one person’s texting and then discipline another for surfing the Internet. The policy should be equally applied to and enforced among all employees.

Mary Luros is a business law attorney with Hudson & Luros LLP in Napa, and can be reached at mary@hudsonluros.com. The information provided here is not legal advice, nor does it form an attorney-client relationship with the author. The author makes no representations as to the reliability or accuracy of the above information.