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Amazon's SCOTUS Case: Pay Employees in Line for Security Check?

Before they leave for the day, Amazon's warehouse employees are required to go through a security screening -- basically to make sure they haven't stolen anything. In addition to presuming that their employees may be thieves, Amazon doesn't pay employees for the time they spend waiting to be searched.

The actual search is fairly brief, but employees spend up to 25 minutes waiting in line, and it's this waiting period that's at issue in Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk. On October 8, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case.

SCOTUS Week at FindLaw

Paul Clement for Integrity Staffing Solutions

The critical question for determining whether security screening is compensable is whether the screening is "integral and indispensable to a principal activity" of the job. Former Solicitor General Paul Clement, representing Amazon's employment contractor, said it wasn't.

The case involves incredibly fine details -- picayune details, even. At the outset, Justice Kagan gave Clement a hypothetical about whether cashiers' closing out a register at the end of their shift is compensable. Clement said it probably was compensable as a "wind-down" process, but distinguished the security screening as an noncompensable "postliminary" employment activity.

To Kagan, distinguishing where things happen seemed silly; for example, if a cashier counted out at her workstation, it would be compensable, but if she took the drawer to the manager's station, it wouldn't be. Clement actually acknowledged that the Portal to Portal Act creates some "not particularly sensible results," but the statute does turn on where activities happen.

The definition of "integral and indispensable" is, "Can you do the job without this task?" While Clement said hypothetically it was possible, Kagan brought him back to the reality of Amazon's situation, which is inventory control.

Curtis Gannon for United States, Amicus for Petitioner

In his time before the Court, Curtis Gannon tried to refine the definitions of preliminary and postliminary. A postliminary activity is something that happens after the regular work process has finished and as the employee is on the way out the door.

Kagan brought Gannon back to the cash register hypothetical: Isn't counting out the cash register just as much of an antitheft mechanism as screening employees on the way out the door? No, said Gannon, who wanted to resist looking at the purpose of the security checks, because counting out the cash is (for a still-unexplained reason) a principal activity of being a cashier.

Mark Thierman, for Busk, et al.

Postliminal, preliminal, integral -- whatever. Mark Thierman's only concerned with whether something is a "principal" activity. Predictably, the Chief Justice, along with Justices Alito and Scalia, jumped on Thierman. How is not stealing a "principal" activity of a warehouse employee?

Thierman got boxed into a corner here, as he had said that a "principal activity" is anything the employee is told to do that doesn't fit into one of the statutory exceptions. Roberts and Scalia were pretty credulous: You don't hire an employee to punch in and punch out; you hire an employee to do substantive work. So it can't be the case that anything an employer tells you to do is compensable.

On Thierman's side is the "continuous workday" concept, borrowed from cases where employees have to put on protective equipment before starting work. The workday begins once the employees begin putting on protective clothing and ends when they take it off. This means that the time spent waiting in line to put on clothes isn't counted, but the time spent waiting to take them off is.

How'd It Go?

Basically like you'd expect. Roberts, Alito, and Scalia were clearly on Clement's side. In fact, every time Clement was asked a difficult question, Scalia swooped in to rescue him.

The case really comes down to how you want to characterize the waiting; the result follows easily and naturally from that characterization. The law doesn't compel one characterization or another. This case isn't about calling balls and strikes; it's simply about whether you think employees should be paid to wait in line for a mandatory search before leaving.

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