Workers at Amazon Warehouses Won't Get Paid for Waiting in Security Lines

Shipping boxes sit on carts near product storage bays at an Amazon fulfillment center. Photographer: Bartek Sadowski/Bloomberg

Companies that make their workers go through security screenings before they can go home don’t have to pay them for the time they spend waiting in line to be checked, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday morning. All nine justices sided with an Amazon.com contractor, Integrity Staffing Solutions, on the grounds that a lawsuit by warehouse workers should have been dismissed.

The question driving the original case, as I explained in Bloomberg Businessweek in October, is what counts as work. In 1938, Congress required that companies pay their workers for time they spend on the job. In 1947, following a flood of lawsuits, Congress passed a new law clarifying that this didn’t include “preliminary” or “postliminary” activities such as commuting. Courts, companies, and employees have been wrestling ever since over where exactly that line should be drawn.

In a pair of precedent-setting cases in 1956, the justices ruled that bosses must pay for the time butchers spend sharpening knives and the time battery workers spend showering off traces of sulfuric acid because those activities are “integral and indispensable” to the workers’ principal activities. The Amazon warehouse workers argued that the time they spend standing in security lines—up to 25 minutes a day, they claim, which Amazon denies—should be compensated, too.

The Supreme Court wasn’t persuaded. “Integrity Staffing did not employ its workers to undergo security screenings,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. “The screenings were not an intrinsic element of retrieving products from warehouse shelves or packaging them for shipment.” (No one dissented; justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan concurred.) Thomas wrote that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California, which allowed the case to proceed, had considered the wrong factors, such as whether Integrity required the screenings and whether it benefited from them. The justices also dismissed the employees’ argument that Integrity could easily have cut down their waiting time by hiring additional security inspectors; Thomas said that argument was better suited to “the bargaining table,” not to a court. (The Integrity workers don’t have a union.)

Unlike the meat workers’ tool sharpening or the battery workers’ safety showers, the court concluded, the security lines weren’t necessary to the warehouse workers’ jobs. In fact, Thomas wrote, Integrity “could have eliminated the screenings altogether without impairing the employees’ ability to complete their work.” So even if companies mandate that their workers wait in security lines, and bosses benefit from having the checkpoints, and they refuse to revamp them to make them more efficient, employees hoping to sue for better treatment are out of luck. If they want to make their bosses cough up cash for their time in line, they’ll have to find an alternate way to do it.

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