Imagine you've finished your shift, left your workstation, and as you exit the building you have to wait an additional 20 or 25 minutes to clear a security checkpoint set up by your employer to ensure that you aren't stealing anything. Should you be paid for that time as part of your workday?
Integrity Staffing Solutions, a contracting company that provided warehouse workers to Amazon.com, says no. But some former Integrity employees in Nevada disagree, and the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in the case.
The issue goes back to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act and the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947, which together established rules about what is considered work time. Subsequent court decisions have held that walking from one's car to one's work site, for instance, is not considered part of the compensable workday.
But if an activity is "an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed," then the time it takes to do the activity should be paid for, the Supreme Court ruled in Steiner vs. Mitchell in 1956. Donning protective clothing at the start of a shift is not covered, though the court has said (following a seemingly inconsistent logic) that the time it takes to remove the clothing and decontaminate at the end of the shift should be covered.
The question in the Integrity case is whether waiting in line for an antitheft body search, at the insistence of the employer and for the employer's benefit, fits under that "integral and indispensable" definition. We think it does. Secretaries and other Amazon workers were not subjected to the search, just those who worked in the warehouse. By making it part of a warehouse worker's daily job requirement, the company deemed it indispensable.
Of course, Integrity could have made this a moot point if it had hired enough screeners to handle the end-of-shift traffic in a reasonable amount of time. Screening itself takes just a minute or two, but the delays were caused by the employer's refusal to properly staff the screening kiosks, saving itself money while taking up to 25 minutes a day of its workers' time.
The Supreme Court has been tough on this issue. It has ruled, for instance, that waiting in line to punch the time clock at the beginning of a shift should not be compensated. But this case seems clear. It is unconscionable that the company detains employees for as much as two extra hours over a five-day workweek without paying them. The court should back the workers in this one.