Supreme Court: Amazon Employees Don’t Have To Be Paid To Wait In Line To Leave Work
The Court holds that Federal Law does not require employees to be paid for the time waiting to get through mandatory security screening.
In a surprisingly unanimous decision released yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that workers at an Amazon warehouse were not entitled to be paid for the time during which they had to wait in line for a security check each time the exited the workplace at the end of the day:
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously that a temp agency was not required to pay workers at Amazon warehouses for the time they spent waiting to go through a security screening at the end of the day. The workers say the process, meant to prevent theft, can take as long as 25 minutes.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, said the screenings were not “integral and indispensable” to the workers’ jobs, which involved retrieving products from warehouse shelves and packaging them for delivery to Amazon’s customers. That meant, he said, that no extra pay was required.
The decision was a big loss for workers challenging the security checks, which are common among retailers. According to a brief filed by the agency, there have been 13 class-action lawsuits against Amazon and other companies involving more than 400,000 plaintiffs and seeking hundreds of millions of dollars.
The case that the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday turned on the meaning of a 1947 law, the Portal-to-Portal Act, which says that companies need not pay for “preliminary” or “postliminary” activities, meaning ones that take place before and after the workday proper. The Supreme Court interpreted the law in 1956 in Steiner v. Mitchell to require pay only for tasks that are an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed.”
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, had allowed the case to proceed, saying the screenings were for the company’s benefit and were a necessary part of the workers’ jobs. That was enough, the appeals court said, to make the screenings “integral and indispensable.”
Justice Thomas disagreed, saying the appeals court had “erred by focusing on whether an employer required a particular activity.” The right test, he said, was whether the activity “is tied to the productive work that the employee is employed to perform.”
Justice Thomas said Tuesday’s ruling was required by the 1947 law, which was a reaction to Supreme Court decisions that had required pay for a broad range of work-related activities and gave rise to “a flood of litigation” seeking nearly $6 billion. Congress responded by tightening the standards, saying the alternative would have been the “financial ruin of many employers.”
ince then, Justice Thomas said, the court has required pay for activities that were “an intrinsic element of the job” and could not be skipped. Under that test, battery-plant workers had to be paid for the time spent showering and changing clothes because the materials they worked with were toxic. And meatpackers had to be paid for the time it took to sharpen their knives because dull knives would slow production.
Security screenings are different, Justice Thomas wrote. “Integrity Staffing could have eliminated the screenings altogether,” he wrote, “without impairing the employees’ ability to complete their work.”
Justice Thomas noted that the Obama administration had sided with the temp agency, adding that the administration’s position was consistent with a 1951 letter from the Labor Department that did not require pay for screenings at a rocket-powder plant. Workers there were screened for matches and lighters on the way in and to prevent theft on the way out.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the court’s opinion but added a concurrence to stress its limited scope. Activities related to worker safety and efficiency remained covered, she said. But in the warehouse case, she wrote, “employees could skip the screenings altogether without the safety of effectiveness of their principal activities being substantially impaired.”
She added that, as its name suggests, the Portal-to-Portal Act was “primarily concerned with defining the beginning and end of the workday.”
Lyle Denniston has further analysis:
The overtime pay case involved workers at two warehouses in Nevada, which served as storage and order-filling facilities for the online retail giant Amazon.com. Two of Integrity’s hourly workers sued the company after it began requiring all workers to go through screening before they left the premises, a policy designed to deter theft of goods.
The two workers, who filed a class-action lawsuit, contended that they had to wait up to twenty-five minutes to be searched, at which point they then had to remove their wallets, keys, and belts and pass through a metal detector. Their lawyers argued that because this procedure was a mandatory part of their job, imposed by their employer, they were entitled to be paid overtime for the additional time.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Integrity had to pay overtime for the screening process, concluding that this after-work review was a job requirement and was for the company’s benefit.
Reversing that result, and reaching the same conclusion reached by all other federal appeals courts that had considered the issue, the Supreme Court declared that such screening procedures were not an “integral” part of the job. Integrity’s staff at the warehouses, the Court said in an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, were hired to take products off the shelves and package them for shipment to Amazon’s customers, not to go through security screenings.
The Court also found that Integrity could have eliminated the screenings without affecting the workers’ ability to complete their normal tasks. The decision commented that the Ninth Circuit was wrong in focusing on whether the employer had required the extra activity at the end of the workday. If that were the test, Justice Thomas wrote, it would sweep into the realm of paid employment the very kind of activities that Congress had enacted the Portal-to-Portal Act, passed in 1947 to narrow the scope of wage and hour rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act, to address.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, wrote a brief concurring opinion, elaborating on their understanding of the standards the Thomas opinion had used.
As a matter of common sense, I suppose, the reaction of a lay person to this decision is likely to be one of confusion as to how the Supreme Court could reach a decision like this, especially unanimously. When James Joyner wrote about this case in October shortly before it was argued as part of the Supreme Court’s very first day back on the bench for the October 2014 term, he suggested that the common sense solution should be that employees are entitled to be compensated for the time that they are required to wait in line to exit the warehouse facility where they work due to security procedures designed to ensure that they aren’t stealing. As Justice Thomas writes for the unanimous Court, though, that’s not what the Portal to Portal Act, and the case law that has interpreted it, says:
The security screenings at issue here are noncompensable postliminary activities. To begin with, the screenings were not the “principal activity or activities which [the] employee is employed to perform.” 29 U. S. C. §254(a)(1). Integrity Staffing did not employ its workers to undergo security screenings, but to retrieve products from warehouse shelves and package those products for shipment to Amazon customers.
The security screenings also were not “integral and indispensable” to the employees’ duties as warehouse workers. As explained above, 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. The screenings were not an intrinsic element of retrieving products from warehouse shelves or packaging them for shipment. And Integrity Staffing could have eliminated the screenings altogether without impairing the employees’ ability to complete their work.
The Solicitor General, adopting the position of the Department of Labor, agrees that these screenings were noncompensable postliminary activities. See Brief for United States 10. That view is fully consistent with an Opinion Letter the Department issued in 1951. The letter found noncompensable a preshift security search of employees in a rocket-powder plant ” ‘for matches, spark producing devices such as cigarette lighters, and other items which have a direct bearing on the safety of the employees,'” as well as a postshift security search of the employees done “‘for the purpose of preventing theft.'” Opinion Letter from Dept. of Labor, Wage and Hour Div., to Dept. of Army, Office of Chief of Ordnance (Apr. 18, 1951), pp. 1-2 (available in Clerk of Court’s case file). The Department drew no distinction between the searches conducted for the safety of the employees and those conducted for the purpose of preventing theft—neither were compensable under the Portal-to-Portal Act.
The Court of Appeals erred by focusing on whether an employer required a particular activity. The integral and ndispensable test is tied to the productive work that the employee is employed to perform. See, e.g., IBP, 546 U. S., at 42; Mitchell, supra, at 262; Steiner, 350 U. S., at 249-251; see also 29 CFR §790.8(a) (explaining that the term ”principal activities” was “considered sufficiently broad to embrace within its terms such activities as are indispensable to the performance of productive work” (internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis added)); §790.8(c) (“Among the activities included as an integral part of a principal activity are those closely related activities which are indispensable to its performance” (emphasis added)). 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. The employer in Anderson, for instance, required its employees to walk “from a timeclock near the factory gate to a workstation” so that they could “begin their work,” “but it is indisputable that the Portal-to-Portal Act evinces Congress’ intent to repudiate Anderson’s holding that such walking time was compensable under the FLSA.” IBP, supra, at 41. A test that turns on whether the activity is for the benefit of the employer is similarly overbroad.
Finally, we reject the employees’ argument that time spent waiting to undergo the security screenings is compensable under the FLSA because Integrity Staffing could have reduced that time to a de minimis amount. The fact that an employer could conceivably reduce the time spent by employees on any preliminary or postliminary activity does not change the nature of the activity or its relationship to the principal activities that an employee is employed to perform. These arguments are properly presented to the employer at the bargaining table, see 29 U. S. C. §254(b)(1), not to a court in an FLSA claim.
We hold that an activity is integral and indispensable to the principal activities that an employee is employed to perform—and thus compensable under the FLSA—if it is an intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities. Because the employees’ time spent waiting to undergo and undergoing Integrity Staffing’s security screenings does not meet these criteria, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
Regardless of what might seem like “common sense” or “fairness,” then, the law here is based purely on an an interpretation of a law that has been on the book for some sixty-seven years now, and it does appear that the Court is interpreting that law, which was meant to supplement the Fair Labor Standards Act, and perhaps most importantly to specifically overturn certain Supreme Court decisions that had broadly interpreted what constituted a “compensable” activity under that law in the early years after it was adopted, correctly in this case. Indeed, the fact that this is a unanimous decision and that the Labor Department took the position that the security screenings were non-compensable seems to strongly suggest that the Court got the result right here as a matter of law. If you’ve got a complaint with the outcome, then that complaint lies with Congress, not the Courts. However, given that this this law has stood for 67 years it seems unlikely that we’d see any real effort to change it even if the partisan makeup of the House and Senate were to change at some point in the future.
Here is the Court’s relatively brief opinion in the matter: