December 11, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
The Supreme Court on Dec. 9 unanimously ruled that workers at Amazon warehouses aren’t entitled to get paid for having to spend up to half an hour waiting to be screened for stolen goods after their shifts are over.
The Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said those searches were not “integral and indispensable” to the “principal activities of the job.” Workers at two Amazon warehouses in Nevada had filed a suit demanding to get paid for that time, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had backed them, saying that the searches were an integral part of the job because their employers required it. Integrity Staffing Solutions, the temp agency Amazon hired the workers through, appealed, and the Supreme Court overruled the Ninth Circuit.
“If the employer requires it, the work should be paid. That’s the common-sense principle that should have carried the day but was violated here,” National Employment Law Project general counsel Catherine Ruckelshaus responded in a statement. “Amazon hired its warehouse workers via a temp firm, Integrity Staffing Solutions, and required the firm to conduct these anti-theft screenings. Workers were required to wait 25 minutes or longer every day—more than two hours every week—just to leave work. The workers’ time was taken but not paid for.”
The decision turned on the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947, which attempted to define where working hours begin and end. Time spent waiting to receive paychecks is not considered part of work, for example, but the courts have held that battery-factory workers should get paid for wash-up time, because it’s essential for them to clean off toxins they’ve been exposed to on the job. On the other hand, courts have also ruled that workers in a chicken-processing plant were not entitled to get paid for the time they spent changing into protective gear, because that was deemed part of the “preliminary” or “postliminary” activities of getting to and from the job.
Justice Thomas held that Ninth Circuit was wrong to say that going through the searches was indispensable because it was required by the employer.
“Integrity Staffing did not employ its workers to undergo screenings, but to retrieve packages from warehouse shelves and package those products for shipment to Amazon customers,” he wrote. “The screenings were not an intrinsic element of retrieving packages from warehouse shelves and packaging them for shipment. And Integrity Staffing could have eliminated the screenings altogether without impairing the employees’ ability to complete their work.”
Justices Sandra Sotomayor and Elena Kagan concurred, saying the majority opinion followed precedents. “Employees could skip the screenings altogether without the safety or effectiveness of their principal activities being substantially impaired,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.
On the other hand, it’s highly unlikely that employees could skip the screenings without their ability to keep their jobs being substantially impaired. “It’s shocking that an employer’s requirement that workers be at the worksite, doing the employer’s bidding, isn’t compensable ‘work,’” NELP deputy director Rebecca Smith told LaborPress. “And doubly shocking in this context, where low-wage workers are forced to donate nearly a half hour every day to a huge retailer.”
By the Court’s logic, an employer could require workers to sit around doing nothing for an hour after work and not have to pay them for it. Ruckelshaus said the decision “creates a perverse incentive for employers to require workers to perform more ‘non-principal’ activities that will not be compensated.”
Justice Thomas also said the issue—as well as the workers’ claims that Amazon could have shortened their waiting time by hiring more screeners or staggering shift times—was one more properly resolved “at the bargaining table.”
“His comment ignores the fact that there is no bargaining table. There is no union representing these workers,” Ruckelshaus responded.