Amazon workers go to Supreme Court in $100M fight over wages, security searches

On Wednesday morning at 10 AM, the Supreme Court will hear an employee rights case that has big implications for Amazon and other retailers like Apple that face class action lawsuits over unpaid security searches.

The case could affect millions of workers and increase costs for employers. It also has a symbolic significance at a time of public debate over worker wages that remained stagnant during the recent tech boom.

Who is suing Amazon and why?

Jesse Busk, a 37-year-old who works in an [company]Amazon[/company] warehouse in Nevada, claims he had to stand in lines for up to 30 minutes at the end of a 12-hour shift so the company could perform an anti-theft check. He and other workers say they should be paid for this time.

The defendant in the case is actually a staffing agency called Integrity Staffing Solutions, but the outcome will affect a series of class action lawsuits — currently on hold — against Amazon, [company]Apple[/company] and others. For its part, Amazon said in a statement, “We have a longstanding practice of not commenting on pending litigation, but data shows that employees walk through post shift security screening with little or no wait.”

What’s at stake?

Busk’s lawyers say Amazon and staffing agencies owe 400,000 workers more than $100 million in back wages, according to Bloomberg. If the workers prevail, the companies will have to pay more or change their security practices.

An employee victory could also provide momentum to other labor campaigns, including ones aimed at higher wages for [company]Facebook[/company] bus drivers and [company]Uber[/company] employees.

The case turns on a 1947 labor law and how the Supreme Court chooses to define work that is “an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities.” In other words, is the time a worker spends standing around for an anti-theft search similar to time spent walking across a store parking lot (which is unpaid)? Or is it a core part of the duties for which she is paid?

The staffing agency says that what matters is whether the activity (in this case, standing in line) is related to what the worker is normally paid to do, such as packing boxes in a warehouse. The workers say the court should focus on the fact that the activity is ordered by the employer and that employees can’t refuse to comply. What’s to keep the employer from ordering to do things like wash the boss’s car without pay?

Who’s going to win?

The workers lost the original case but then won on appeal at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California. At the Supreme Court, the Justice Department has decided to step in on the side of the employers, and will argue that the workers should not be paid.

There is no clear consensus for now as to how the nine Supreme Court Justices will rule, though the court has sided with employers in recent high-profile labor cases.

Where can I learn more?

SCOTUS blog, the go-to source for Supreme Court stories, has a full rundown of the legal issues.

Bloomberg also has a detailed look at the facts of the case, and the business implications for the companies.