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Supreme Court to Amazon workers: no extra pay for time spent on security checks

In a unanimous 9-0 decision handed down by the Supreme Court on Dec. 9, Integrity Staffing Solutions, a temp agency filling orders for Amazon, is not required to pay employees overtime pay for going through a screening process at the end of their shift. Employees say the entire screening takes up nearly half an hour after their shifts, adding a total of two-and-a-half hours every week taken up by their work duties.

The high court overturned the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which ruled that workers must receive compensation because the screenings benefited the company. Therefore, the security checks are an "integral and indispensable" part of their jobs that the employer must compensate for.

However, the Supreme Court disagrees. In writing on behalf of the court, Justice Clarence Thomas says the appeals court erred in focusing on whether the employer required the screening. He says the real test is whether the activity required was essential to workers' productivity.

"An activity is not integral and indispensable to an employee's principal activities unless it is an intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform those activities," Justice Thomas writes (pdf). "The screenings were not an intrinsic element of retrieving products from warehouse shelves or packaging them for shipment."

Moreover, he adds that Integrity Staffing could have removed the security screening altogether without impairing the workers' ability to complete their work.

The ruling was based on a 1956 ruling that required an interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947 that say companies are not required to compensate workers for "preliminary" and "postliminary" activities that fall outside the work day proper.

In Steiner v. Mitchell, the Supreme Court ruled that employers need only to pay for time spent on tasks that are "integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed."

By using the "integral and indispensable" test, workers at a battery-making facility must receive compensation for the time they shower and change clothes because they are working with toxic materials and employees at a meat-packing factory must be paid for the time it takes to sharpen their knives because dull tools slow down production. However, workers at the Amazon plant owned by Integrity Staffing are not entitled to the same compensation.

Plaintiffs Jesse Busk of Las Vegas and Laurie Castro of Fenley, Nevada say the screening would not be taking as long as it does if the employer only decided to invest in adequate screening facilities and manpower. They say workers at the Amazon plants take up to 25 minutes to wait in line to pass through metal detectors, a statement which Amazon countered.

"The allegations in this case were simply not true," says Amazon spokesperson Kelly Cheeseman. "Data shows that employees typically walk through security with little or no wait, and Amazon has a global process that ensures the time employees spend waiting in security is less than 90 seconds."

The lawsuit would have required Integrity Staffing to pay up to $100 million in back wages to more than 400,000 workers, an attorney speaking for the plaintiffs says. He calls the decision "bad for working men and women."

"I'm disappointed in the result because as a practical matter, it leaves all those employed in FLSA-only states without redress for a half-hour of time required by the employer to be away from their families," says Mark Thierman, lawyer for the plaintiffs.


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