March 4, 2014

U.S. Supreme Court to hear Amazon warehouse case


When even the guy in your logo is getting ready for a pat-down, you know something's amiss

When even the guy in your logo is getting ready for a pat-down, you know something’s amiss

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear arguments about Amazon’s habit of making already-abused employees stand unpaid for almost half an hour in a security line every day.

As discussed previously on Mobylives, Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro brought suit in 2011 against Integrity Staffing Solutions Inc, the massive, litigious temp company used by Amazon to staff many of their warehouses. Integrity, you may remember, is the same company which makes a habit of taking employees to court after it fires them (often for injuries caused by walking a dozen miles a day in Amazon warehouses) in order to deny them unemployment benefits. They are, in short, precisely what you’d expect from a company with a name that Orwellian.

Busk and Castro eventually expanded their suit to include Amazon. Their claim was dismissed by a Nevada court, but reinstated by an appeals panel last spring.

That appeals court decision was recommended to the Supreme Court for review by various business advocacy groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (who are, of course, tireless in their efforts to remind us that Commerce is the exclusive domain of droopy cash-flecked assholes).

As Claire Zillman reports for Fortune, “In petitioning the Supreme Court to take the case, Integrity’s lawyer, Paul Clement, argued that ‘in the post-9/11 world ….’ Then Clement talks about contrails and whether jet fuel can melt steel for a while, so, skipping ahead, “Allowing the Nevada workers’ suit to go forward, Clement argued, ‘opens employers up to billions of dollars in retroactive damages.'”

Yes, former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, you are correct. That is the entire point. These people and millions more around the country would like to be paid for their labor, and you would like to not pay them. Thanks for clarifying. ‘People will have to atone for their cruelties’ is not a convincing defense against accusations of cruelty. It is, instead, the very result we’re hoping for.

Clement is correct that the stakes here are high. That may be precisely why the court agreed to hear the case. Zillman continues:

Indeed, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit let the Nevada workers’ case continue, other employees filed similar nationwide class actions against Amazon distribution centers in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Washington state. Workers at a regional distribution center sued CVS Pharmacy in September 2012 over its security checks, and tens of thousands of workers sued Apple in July 2013 because it requires its hourly retail employees to go through bag searches and clearance checks.

“The high court case centers on the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires compensation for pre- and post-shift activities that are ‘integral and indispensable’ to an employee’s principal activities,” writes Greg Stohr for Bloomberg.

Earlier rulings about those laws by lower courts have exempted companies like airlines from having to compensate their employees for time spent in security checks, in part because those checks were mandated by outside agencies. In this case, Amazon itself is insisting that employees be checked to ensure they’re not stealing Zumba DVDs or whatever it is that site sells at this point.

Clement compared the security checks to areas with heavy traffic in Integrity’s brief to the high court. “Both circumstances may result in minor inconveniences to employees, but neither is remotely the type of issue that should be subject to mandatory, government-imposed compensation.” Your employer doesn’t pay you for your time stuck on the freeway, right? And he’s not wrong. Amazon’s security lines are a lot like a traffic jam, only inside of your place of work, caused specifically and directly by a neglectful vindictive boss.

There doesn’t seem to be an established consensus in the media about where the court might fall on this case, but given the Roberts court’s outlandish passion for all things corporate, I won’t be holding my breath until the case is finally heard in October 2014.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.