The Supreme Court made what I believe is a misguided ruling Tuesday in a case about whether workers should get paid for the time they spend going through a security screening at the end of their shift at Amazon warehouses.
Saying that a 1947 law, the “Portal-to-Portal Act” decreed that the extra time had to be “integral and indispensable” to the warehouse work of taking packages off shelves and prepping them for delivery, the unanimous opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the workers didn’t deserve to be paid for the screening time, which the plaintiffs said could take up to 25 minutes.
Amazon insisted that workers go through the screenings, conducted by a temp agency called Integrity Staffing Solutions, or they couldn’t stay in their jobs. I don’t know how that’s not indispensable to the work and it seems unjust on its face that workers not be compensated for time the employer insists workers spend going through a required procedure. Also if the employer doesn’t have to pay for the screening, it has no incentive to expedite it.
The decision is a big loss for workers, as an increasing number of employers require security screenings. 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.
A 1956 Supreme Court decision, Steiner v. Mitchell, interpreting the Portal-to-Portal Act, said that employers only have to pay for work that is an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed.”
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco had let the case proceed, saying the Amazon checks were a necessary part of the workers’ jobs, which made them “integral and indispensable.” Justice Thomas disagreed, writing that the Ninth Circuit had “erred by focusing on whether an employer required a particular activity.”
Instead the screening had to be “tied to the productive work that the employee is employed to perform.” I’m not sure how a security check isn’t tied to the warehouse workers’ productive labor if the screening is meant to determine whether the worker is swiping something she was supposed to load into a box.
The plaintiffs, Jesse Buck, who worked in a Las Vegas Amazon warehouse and Lauri Castro, who worked at a warehouse in Fenley, NV, had sued the temp agency. They had to pull out their wallets and keys and take off their belts before passing through metal detectors. In an October statement, Amazon took issue with the time the plaintiffs said the screenings took, insisting that employees faced little or no wait.
Justice Thomas wrote that the 1947 law clearly meant the security checks weren’t integral to the work because the law was passed after Supreme Court decisions that had required workers get no compensation for many work-related activities like “traveling between mine portals and underground work areas.”
I believe it makes sense for employers to pay for actions like that as well, but I reluctantly see Thomas’s point if it’s clear the 1947 law was passed in reaction to employers’ complaints that they didn’t think they should have to pay workers for travel time or time spent walking from time clock to work benches.
On the other hand, Thomas also noted that court decisions have ruled that battery-plant workers get paid for time spent showering and changing clothes to rid themselves of toxic chemicals, and meatpackers get paid for the time it takes to sharpen their knives. Security screenings are different, wrote Thomas, because they could have been cut “without impairing the employees’ ability to complete the work.”
Thomas also wrote that the Obama administration sided with the temp agency and that the Labor Department had written a letter in 1951 saying that it didn’t require pay for screenings at a rocket-powder plant where workers were searched for matches on the way in and on the way out, to make sure they didn’t steal anything.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion where she said the decision should be interpreted narrowly going forward and that the security searches were similar to waiting in line to check in and out of work. I disagree. Employees have control over the time that they show up to the door of the warehouse. They have no choice about the security screening.
One more thing, as noted in a press release I got from the liberal National Employment Law Project: Justice Thomas says that the Amazon workers’ arguments “are properly presented at the bargaining table.” But the workers at Amazon are not unionized.