Amazon Workers Take Security-Line Woes to Supreme Court

Updated on

Jesse Busk spent a 12-hour shift rushing inventory through an Inc. warehouse in Nevada to meet quotas. His day wasn’t over, though.

After clocking out, Busk and hundreds of other workers went through an airport-style screening process, including metal detectors, to make sure they weren’t stealing from the Web retailer. Getting through the line often took as long as 25 minutes, uncompensated, he and others employed there say.

“They did it on my time,” Busk, 37, of Henderson, Nevada, said in an interview. “If people are stuck in your building and they’re not allowed to leave, why don’t you go ahead and pay them?”

Those allegations are now before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could help redefine companies’ reach over hourly workers. On Wednesday, the top court will hear arguments related to a suit brought by Busk seeking compensation for his time in the security lines.

Busk’s December 2010 lawsuit, against a temporary staffing agency that provided workers to Amazon, was among the first to challenge the screening practice. Since then, a dozen similar suits have been filed involving Seattle-based Amazon, and more against other retailers.

The suits underscore the growing tensions between employers that seek to minimize costs to gain a competitive edge and the workers who may suffer the consequences. While companies such as Amazon use the screens to guard against theft, employees such as Busk say what’s being taken is their own time, for Amazon’s benefit.

Back Wages

If the Supreme Court sides with Busk, his case will be allowed to move forward in a federal trial court. Ultimately, Amazon and various staffing agencies it uses could be required to pay as many as 400,000 workers back wages amounting to $100 million or more, according to plaintiffs’ attorneys involved in the case.

The stakes are also high for Busk and other hourly workers in the U.S., many of whom eke out a living in a tepid job market with stagnant wages. If Amazon prevails, employers could feel emboldened to squeeze more time out of workers without pay, pushing the boundaries of a 67-year-old law that defines what constitutes compensable work.

Amazon doesn’t comment on pending litigation, said spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman. “Data shows that employees walk through post-shift security screening with little or no wait,” Cheeseman said. Integrity Staffing Solutions Inc., the temporary-worker firm named as the defendant in Busk’s suit, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Unpaid Walks

In court filings, Amazon, Integrity and other temporary staffing firms have argued that security-line waits are no different than time spent walking to and from a work area, which courts have determined isn’t compensable.

The Supreme Court case is likely to have an impact on several pending lawsuits. Apple Inc., CVS Health Corp., J.C. Penney Co., TJX Cos. and Ross Stores Inc. are all battling court claims involving searches at break times or the end of shifts at distribution centers or stores.

“It’s a much bigger deal than just about searches,” said Eric Schnapper, a law professor at the University of Washington. “If the court adopts the company’s view, it would allow employers to require employees do a variety of tasks once their shift ends.”

Attorneys for the workers say one of their challenges is to get the court to distinguish between security screenings for weapons -- conducted for the safety of workers and others, at the beginning of shifts in venues such as courtrooms and airports -- and the anti-theft checks, which are done at the end of the shift and solely for the employer’s benefit.

Tiny Margins

Seattle-based Amazon, the world’s No. 2 online retailer by market capitalization after Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., has built a reputation for selling goods at low prices and delivering them quickly and inexpensively, with tiny margins. That success rides on the company’s network of massive warehouses -- more than 40 so-called fulfillment centers in the U.S. alone, according to the company, staffed by 40,000 workers, swelling to 110,000 during the holiday season.

15-Mile Days

Busk spent several months in the Amazon warehouse in North Las Vegas in 2009 and 2010, working through Integrity Staffing. He earned about $12.35 an hour, walking roughly 15 miles in each 12-hour shift, pushing a cart that he loaded with books, DVDs, electronics and various other products to fulfill online orders. Workers who didn’t meet their quotas were dismissed, he said in the interview.

At the end of each shift, hundreds of warehouse staff would stand in a single-file line with two security screening checkpoints at the end. Workers would put their keys and belts in a tray. Those who set off the metal detectors would be scanned with wands as others behind them waited, lamenting they weren’t home resting up for the next day’s shift, he said.

“You’re completely exhausted because the shift is so long, and then you have to stay all this extra time off the clock,” Busk said. “My main concern was that they were stealing.”

Dozen Suits

His allegations, filed in 2010, aren’t unique.

About 80 people who have worked in Amazon warehouses around the country have made similar complaints against the company and its temporary staffing partners. Their 12 suits have been consolidated in federal court in Louisville, Kentucky. Almost all of the security-line cases are on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision on Busk’s case.

Last year, Amazon settled a lawsuit filed by workers at its center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, over time spent in security checks. Lead plaintiff Dollie Suggars, who worked at Amazon from November through mid-December 2012, said security screenings could take as long as 15 minutes, cutting workers’ lunch breaks in half and forcing some to forgo rest periods altogether.

Amazon agreed to settle the case in October 2013, paying about 15 workers from $252 to $5,808 each, plus unspecified attorney’s fees and expenses, according to court documents.

Suggars said in court papers that her job as a picker required her to walk around the warehouse collecting products from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. or later, four days a week. She sometimes worked on Saturday and Sunday as well.

Borderline Diabetic

A borderline diabetic who suffers from low blood sugar, Suggars was terminated after “pointing out” on Amazon’s disciplinary system for attendance.

“To keep my blood sugar at the right level, I would need to eat during my workday and take short breaks,” she said in court papers. That, she said, required her to pass through security each time. “Amazon would not allow me to do that.”

In a Sept. 15 filing in Kentucky, attorneys representing Amazon said the company was still investigating the facts of the case and denied that time spent passing through a security screening is “compensable work.” The company also argued that it shouldn’t be required to pay back wages to those employed by temporary staffing firms.

Workers at two Amazon warehouses in Nevada -- one in Fernley and another in North Las Vegas -- are plaintiffs in the suit before the Supreme Court. Interviews with several workers at the two warehouses indicate lines to leave have been moving more quickly in recent months. Now, they said, workers who set off the metal detectors have to wait to be scanned with a wand while the rest of the queue keeps moving.

Small Electronics

Amazon has to take theft seriously. Thousands of workers come and go each day from warehouses packed with inventory that includes small, easily concealable electronics.

Employee theft costs retailers an estimated $18 billion in 2012, more than any other type of larceny, according to a study by Richard C. Hollinger, director of the Security Research Project at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “This is a staggering monetary loss to come from a single crime type,” Hollinger wrote in his report, which industry trade groups cited in filings with the Supreme Court.

Amazon declined to discuss the extent of theft in its warehouses. Aaron Patty, an officer at the North Las Vegas Police Department, said no theft arrests have been made at the Amazon warehouse in that city within the past few years.

Medical Responses

In Fernley, public safety officials said they come to the warehouse most often for medical emergencies.

“Every now and again, we’ll get a theft complaint, like someone ran out of the warehouse with something,” Lyon County Sheriff Lt. Johnny Smith said. “We really don’t go out there for a whole lot.”

The Busk case marks the first time the Supreme Court will decide whether workers must be compensated for time spent in security screenings.

The 1947 Portal-to-Portal Act -- an update of 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a minimum wage and overtime requirements -- says employers aren’t required to compensate workers for time spent getting to and from their workstations. In 1956, the Supreme Court said workers had to be paid for time spent changing in and out of protective gear at a car-battery manufacturing plant -- ruling that workers are entitled to compensation for “integral and indispensable” activities occurring just before or after the work shift.

Security Checks

Security checks don’t meet that “integral and indispensable” test, the Obama administration has argued to the court. Integrity has taken the same view. Both liken screenings to the process of checking in or checking out, something Labor Department regulations say isn’t compensable.

“Waiting in line for a security screening is indistinguishable from many other tasks that have been found non-compensable,” Integrity’s lawyer, Paul Clement, who was U.S. Solicitor General under George W. Bush, argued in court papers.

The company also points to a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that workers at a meat-processing plant didn’t get compensation for time spent waiting to put on their protective gear in a changing room. A separate part of that decision said workers were entitled to pay for time spent walking between the changing room and their workstations.

The Amazon workers contend that compensation is due for any required activity done for the employer’s benefit.

‘Dollars and Cents’

“This is about dollars and cents, and as long as it’s someone else’s dollars and cents, Amazon doesn’t care,” said Mark Thierman, Busk’s attorney in the suit.

Even if Amazon and Integrity prevail at the Supreme Court, the companies can still face similar allegations through courts in states, including Pennsylvania, where wage laws differ from federal codes, said David Garrison, an attorney for Amazon warehouse workers in Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

For low-wage workers across the country, lawsuits are one of the few ways to advocate for minutes and hours workers spend completing work or cleaning up after they have clocked out, said David Madland, managing director of economic policy at the Center for American Progress. In 2012, private lawyers and government agencies recovered $931 million in unpaid wages on behalf of workers as such suits are on the rise, Madland said.

When designing a security system, companies have to balance their security needs with their employees’ time and convenience, said Barry Brandman, president of Danbee Investigations, a security consulting firm in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Big companies can speed the process by adding check points, maintaining metal detectors and training security personnel to be efficient, he said.

“You don’t want to punish 98 percent of the workforce in order to control the 1 or 2 percent who are problems,” said Brandman, who said he wasn’t familiar with Amazon’s warehouse security procedures. “If you’re not concerned about employee morale, you’re more likely to have security problems.”