Supreme Court Rules That Employers Are Not Required To Pay Employees For Passing Through Security Screenings

Posted On: February 12, 2015 under

presented by: Gary Massey
The Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously in Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk, No. 13-433 that a temp agency was not required to offer pay to those employed at Amazon warehouses for the time required of them each day to go through a security screening at the end of their shift. This process – which workers say can take as long as 25 minutes – is intended to prevent theft.
According to Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, because the screenings themselves are not “integral and indispensable” to the jobs of the workers – jobs that involved retrieving products from the shelves of the Amazon warehouse and packaging these products for delivery to customers – no extra pay was required for the screenings themselves. This ruling by the Supreme Court took into account the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947, which states that companies do not need to pay employees for “preliminary” or “postliminary” activities, meaning that any activity that takes place before or after the “workday proper” do not require the company itself to offer payment. The Portal-to-Portal Act was later interpreted by the Supreme Court, in the 1956 case Steiner v. Mitchell, to conclude that pay is only required for tasks that are an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed.”
This decision ultimately struck a blow to efforts from workers challenging the legality of companies offering no payment for time spent in security checks, which are common among retailers. There have recently been 13 class-action lawsuits filed against Amazon and other companies involving more than 400,000 plaintiffs and seeking hundreds of millions of dollars.
The case against Amazon was brought by Jesse Busk, who worked in a Las Vegas, Nevada Amazon warehouse, and Laurie Castro, who worked in an Amazon warehouse in Fenley, Nevada, and who sought to represent a class of workers who, according to them, should be paid for the time it took to remove their wallets, keys, and belts, and to pass through metal detectors – a process that they said approached half an hour, and that they claimed could be expedited were Amazon to add more metal detectors or stagger the ends of work shifts.
Although Amazon disputed the assertion about the amount of time spent by employees going through such checks – claiming that “employees walk through postshift security screening with little or no wait” – the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco allowed the case to proceed after determining that the screenings were for the benefit of the company itself, and were a necessary part of the jobs performed by the workers. In the eyes of the appeals court, those two items were enough to make the screenings “integral and indispensable.”
Justice Thomas of the Supreme Court disagreed, however, saying that the error of the appeals court had been to focus “on whether an employer required a particular activity.” He stated that the proper way to approach the issue was to question whether the activity (in this case, the screening of employees) was “tied to the productive work that the employee is employed to perform.” Since the 1947 enactment of the Portal-to-Portal Act, Justice Thomas said, the court has only required pay for activities that are “an intrinsic element of the job” and could not be skipped. So, for example, employees of battery plants were still paid for the time spent showering and changing clothes after work, because the materials they worked with were toxic, and meatpackers were required to be paid for the time it took to sharpen their knives, as production would be slowed with dull knives. Security screenings, however, could be eliminated altogether “without impairing the employees’ ability to complete their work,” and were therefore not “integral and indispensable” to their jobs, thereby exempting the company from having to offer payment.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, while joining the court’s opinion, stressed that activities related to worker safety and efficiency needed to remain covered by employer pay. In the case of the Amazon warehouse, however, she wrote that “employees could skip the screenings altogether without the safety or effectiveness of their principal activities being substantially impaired,” which therefore meant that such screenings did not require the employees to be paid. She added that the Portal-to-Portal act was “primarily concerned with defining the beginning and end of the workday,” and that the searches were “part of the process by which the employees egressed their place of work, akin to checking in and out and waiting in line to do so,” meaning that such activities were meant by Congress to be noncompensable.