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Supreme Court Rules Against Amazon Workers: No Pay for Standing in Line

The employee security-screening process doesn't have a reputation for being a pleasant experience. You've probably heard some of the horror stories, with long wait times and lost (or mistakenly taken) items. Perhaps the worst part about the experience for workers is that it's dead time -- you don't get paid for standing there, and you can't get that precious time back.

The employee security-screening process doesn’t have a reputation for being a pleasant experience. You’ve probably heard some of the horror stories, with long wait times and lost (or mistakenly taken) items. Perhaps the worst part about the experience for workers is that it’s dead time — you don’t get paid for standing there, and you can’t get that precious time back.

Supreme Court Rules on Labor Law

(Photo Credit: skeeze/Pixabay)

That’s why Las Vegas factory workers took their case to court. The workers, who were employed by Integrity Staffing Solutions and worked as warehouse staff for Amazon, asked the court to force their employer to pay for the required activity of standing in line at the end of their shift, for anti-theft security screening. The workers won their case in the lower courts.

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Then, the case went to the Supreme Court on appeal. After hearing the case, the Supreme Court overturned the findings of the lower court. Their decision means that companies won’t be required to compensate their workers for the time spent standing in security-screening lines (or for any other activity that is not deemed integral to the job).

If you work in a factory and/or are required to stand in security-screening lines at your place of employment, the latest decision from the Supreme Court is troubling, but the case has further ramifications across industries.

So, what’s Integrity Staffing Solutions vs. Busk all about? Here are the basics.

1. Required = Compensated?

The plaintiffs, Jesse Busk and Lauri Castro, worked for the temp agency at two warehouses in Nevada, one in Las Vegas, the other in Fenley, NV. Every day, after work, Busk and Castro were required to take out their wallets and remove their belts before going through metal detectors, to prevent theft.

The workers claimed that the screening took 25 minutes, and that they should be compensated for required activity. The Ninth Court of Appeals initially agreed with the Amazon workers, because the company required the screening. The Supreme Court didn’t agree with this interpretation of the law, in a decision that has been called a setback for improving workplace standards.

2. Pre- or Post-Work Activity = Pay?

The Supreme Court based their ruling on the Portal-to-Portal Act, which says that companies do not need to pay for “preliminary” or “postliminary” activities — in other words, those that happen before or after work. That act was created as a protection for employers against lawsuits involving wage demands, related to travel to and from work.

The nine-page opinion in the Busk case was written by Justice Clarence Thomas.

“If the test could be satisfied merely by the fact that an employer required an activity, it would sweep into ‘principal activities’ the very activities that the Portal-to-Portal Act was designed to address,” wrote Justice Thomas, adding that the screenings were not part of the duties the workers were hired to perform.

The job descriptions for the employees involve tasks along the lines of retrieving products, packaging, and shipping to customers. Nowhere in the job descriptions for companies like Amazon would there be a mention of the employee going through security screenings. 

3. Interpretation of “Integral”?

The ruling by the Supreme Court also hinged on Steiner v. Mitchell, a decision which says that tasks must be an “integral and indispensable” part of the job in order to warrant compensation.

With their unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court determined that the activity of standing in the security-screening line does not meet the standard of being “integral and indispensable,” which sets a scary precedent. After all, this “principal activity” is defined by the employer and thus, is subject to their job description and interpretation.

Ultimately, too, Justice Thomas indicated that “screening time” (and, ostensibly, other issues related to non-integral activities) is “properly presented to the employer at the bargaining table,” according to Forbes. That would presuppose that the Amazon workers or other affected employees are unionized, which they aren’t. 

Future Ramifications?

“The decision is a big loss for workers, as an increasing number of employers require security screenings,” writes Susan Adams in Forbes. “According to a brief filed by Integrity Staffing Solutions, there have been 13 class-action suits against Amazon and other companies with more than 400,000 plaintiffs seeking hundreds of millions of dollars. I think those cases deserve to move forward and employers should change their practices.”

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, tells US News that the decision “runs contrary to everything people are saying about the need to counter wage stagnation and improve labor standards.”

Tell Us What You Think

Are you forced to stand in a security-screening line after work? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Esther Lombardi
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