Rules are made to create contentious working relationships.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Amazon Doesn't Have to Treat Its Workers Fairly

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Should you get paid for standing in line? Workers at an Amazon warehouse thought they should. I kind of agreed. But the Supreme Court disagreed, holding 9-0 that the Amazon contractors could be forced to stand in line to clear security at the end of their workday but did not have to be paid for their time.

This may well seem outrageous to you. But as Doug Mataconis notes, this is a pretty settled area of labor law:

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.

Two things seem worth noting here. The first is that the courts are not in the business of creating rules that ought to exist; that's what we have a legislature for. Regardless of my own personal intuition that an employer ought to put the time clocks on the other side of the security line, the law of the land does not force them to. The text of the statute, and the history of the case law, is what controls here.

The second is that we do have to draw a line somewhere, and there will always be some unfairness about where we actually draw it. Should changing for work be counted as work time, even if you could have put on your work clothes at home? What about an old factory where the parking lot only has one narrow exit, causing a lengthy traffic jam at quitting time? Should they have to pay you to sit in your car? What if the facility is located on a street with a school, forcing workers to add another half hour to their commute because of pickups and dropoffs? If you work in an airport, should you get paid for the time you spend clearing TSA checkpoints?

I can argue any of these cases either way, but the law can't. It has to pick a rule. And whatever rule it picks will create problems for someone -- parents who want to get home to their kids, business owners fighting to stay open in the face of fierce competition. American legislators and courts generally try to draw narrow boundaries rather than enact sweeping principles, because overbroad rules are more likely to have terrible unintended consequences. That is the right approach to take, even if it's unfair in a particular instance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net