Supreme Court Rules Amazon Warehouse Staffers Should Not Be Paid for Standing in Security Lines

kitty in an Amazon box

Many of us have worked jobs where we were required to spend unpaid time doing job-related activities, like turning on an ancient computer and waiting for it to load up the telemarketing software. The US Department of Labor has guidelines about how much unpaid prep work we’re allowed to do before it needs to flip over into wages:

In recording working time under the FLSA, infrequent and insignificant periods of time beyond the scheduled working hours, which cannot as a practical matter be precisely recorded for payroll purposes, may be disregarded. The courts have held that such periods of time are de minimis (insignificant).

Although the Department of Labor does not specifiy how much time counts as “infrequent and insignificant,” the general “across the internet” rule on sites like HR.com and Monster.com state that this insignificant time cannot add up to more than 10 minutes per day.

Of course, if you’re getting your labor law information from Monster.com, you might be a little surprised when you go out into the real world, where the Supreme Court just ruled that Amazon warehouse staffers do not have any right to expect payment for the time they must spend in security screening lines before leaving their jobs.

Here’s the jist of Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk et al:

Respondents, former employees, sued the company alleging, as relevant here, that they were entitled to compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) for the roughly 25 minutes each day that they spent waiting to undergo and undergoing those screenings. They also alleged that the company could have reduced that time to a de minimis amount by adding screeners or staggering shift terminations and that the screenings were conducted to prevent employee theft and, thus, for the sole benefit of the employers and their customers.

Bloomberg Businessweek sums up why the Supreme Court decided that this time spent in line did not qualify for wages:

“Integrity Staffing did not employ its workers to undergo security screenings,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. “The screenings were not an intrinsic element of retrieving products from warehouse shelves or packaging them for shipment.” (No one dissented; justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan concurred.)

I had to look up what it meant for a justice to concur, and it appears to mean that they agree with the decision but might choose to explain their rationale for agreement slightly differently, as Justice Sotomayor does in the text of Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk et al.

As both Department of Labor regulations and our precedent make clear, an activity is “indispensable” to another, principal activity only when an employee could not dispense with it without impairing his ability to perform the principal activity safely and effectively. Thus, although a battery plant worker might, for example, perform his principal activities without donning proper protective gear, he could not do so safely […] the employees could skip the screenings altogether without the safety or effectiveness of their principal activities being substantially impaired, see ante, at 7.

The entire document—both Justice Thomas’s and Justice Sotomayor’s sections—is fascinating, especially the section that hinges on the difference between an employer requiring something of an employee and an employer employing an employee to do something. You can require an employee to do something, like adhering to an office dress code, without employing them to do so.

In this case, you can require employees to undergo a potentially lengthy security screening after completing work without employing them to participate in security screenings, and so you do not have to pay them for the time they stand in line.

Photo credit: Stephen Woods

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