October 9, 2014

Lawsuit on Amazon security screenings goes before the Supreme Court


Image via Wikipedia.

Image via Wikipedia.

If your employer requires you to do something, is it work and should you be paid for it? This is the question at the heart of a case being heard by the Supreme Court this week, a case that starts with Amazon but that could have implications for employers and employees nationwide.

The case is Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, and it’s been making its way through the courts since 2010, when two workers, Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro, filed a lawsuit against Integrity Staffing Solutions, a contractor that recruits and manages staff for Amazon warehouses. Employees at the Nevada warehouse where Busk and Castro worked were required to undergo security screenings every time they left the warehouse, screenings that could take up to 25 minutes, time for which they weren’t paid. These screenings, which aren’t for security but rather to control employee theft, have been the subject of lawsuits across the country, as we wrote about on this blog last year.

Lawyers for Integrity have argued that employees don’t have to be paid for work that isn’t “integral and indispensable” to their jobs. This argument is based on the decision in the 1956 Steiner v. Mitchell case, where the Supreme Court ruled that employees at a battery factory didn’t need to be compensated for the time they spent preparing to work with the dangerous components that go into battery-making and cleaning up afterwards: these activities weren’t considered “integral and indispensable” to the job, though of course not doing them was extremely integral and indispensable to the health of the employees.

This narrow and disturbing view of what constitutes work and what an employer is responsible for is being carried forward by Integrity, and behind them, Amazon. And behind them, the US government. In an article for Forbes on the case, Clare O’Connor writes:

[National Employment Law Project executive director Christine Owens] noted that the U.S. Government — which also, naturally, requires many of its workers to complete out-of-hours security screenings — has already sided with Integrity Staffing Solutions on this case. As well as the Solicitor General’s office, the Chamber of Commerce has backed the Amazon contractor.

Still, there seemed to be some room for optimism: Ninth Circuit Court judges in Nevada ruled in favor of the workers when the case reached that level. Integrity then appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, with hearings beginning yesterday.

Sam Hananel of the Associated Press has been reporting on how it’s going so far: Justices Alito, Roberts, and Scalia appear to be unconvinced by the arguments made by Mark Thierman, the lawyer for the workers; Justices Kagan and Ginsburg have raised questions which suggest they’re more sympathetic to the plaintiffs. Justice Breyer punted:

Justice Stephen Breyer said if he was in the workers’ situation, he’d look to the Labor Department.

“They are the ones who are in charge of this,” Breyer said. “And they are saying you lose.”

There are some questions to keep in mind here as this develops: if the court ultimately rules in favor of Integrity, which so far seems like the most likely outcome, does this just mean maintaining the status quo, where companies of many kinds — including Walmart and Apple, who are also being sued by employees for the same reason — continue to screen employees for however long they want to without compensation?

(Amazon, in a rare comment on an ongoing lawsuit, has claimed that the screening time is actually insignificant, saying that “data shows that employees walk through post shift security screening with little or no wait” — which is both beside the point and not backed up by any evidence.)

Or does it open the door to ever-further encroachments on what an employee can be asked to do for free?

Catherine Ruckelhaus, general counsel and program director for the National Employment Law Project, suggested the latter in a Salon interview with Elias Isquith:

If the Court ends up ruling that this kind of time spent [by workers] isn’t compensable, then I think we’re going to see a lot of other employer practices requiring workers to work off the clock and not get paid for it.

Updates on the case and a full rundown of what’s being debated are available on the SCOTUSblog, if you want to follow along.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.