Supreme Court sides with Amazon in worker security screening case

The Supreme Court handed employers a clear victory on Tuesday, ruling 9-0 that Amazon does not have to compensate workers for the time they spend waiting to clear security searches at the end of their shift.

The case, which was brought by Amazon warehouse workers in Nevada, will also affect companies like [company]Apple[/company], which is facing a similar court challenge over whether it must pay employees while they stand around for anti-theft procedures.

Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Clarence Thomas concluded that a California appeals court erred by focusing on the fact that the security searches were ordered by the employer. The proper test, he ruled, was instead whether the activity in question was essential to the job that the workers were being paid to perform:

The Court of Appeals erred by focusing on whether an employer required a particular activity. The integral and indispensable test is tied to the productive work that the employee is employed to perform. […]

The fact that an employer could conceivably reduce the time spent by employees on any preliminary or postliminary activity does not change the nature of the activity or its relationship to the principal activities that an employee is employed to perform.

Thomas also pointed to examples from earlier court cases in which employees performed duties that would qualify to receive payment. These included the time meatpacking workers had to spend sharpening knives, and battery factory workers who had to shower to remove toxic chemicals. In contrast, Thomas added, the time [company]Amazon[/company] warehouse workers spent on security searches was more like the unpaid time poultry workers spent putting on equipment — in both cases, the activity was “two steps” removed from the productive activity for which they were being paid.

Overall, the 14-page decision brings renewed clarity to a labor statute known as “the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947,” which Congress passed in order to define the beginning and end of the workday.

For Amazon, the ruling means the end of a legal claim that sought $100 million in back wages on behalf of 400,000 workers who worked directly for Amazon and for various staffing agencies used by the retail giant. More broadly, it will also likely end ongoing and would-be class action cases faced by other retailers who employ security searches.

In a statement, Amazon repeated its contentions that the workers’ claims were largely unfounded:

“The allegations in this case were simply not true – data shows that employees typically walk through security with little or no wait, and Amazon has a global process that ensures the time employees spend waiting in security is less than 90 seconds.”

For workers, who have claimed that the unpaid anti-theft searches can take up to 30 minutes every shift, the ruling is a clear defeat.

The decision included a brief concurrence written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, which reaffirmed that “preliminary or postlimininary” activities were not compensable under the Portal-to-Portal Act.

Here’s the ruling.

SCOTUS Busk Ruling

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This story was updated several times on Tuesday morning.