No other company embodies the mantra “Time is money” quite like Amazon, with its seamless mastery of “just in time” logistics and round-the-clock online retail hours. But inside the cavernous warehouses that ship its goods, there are real people, and their time is not so preciously valued. So the Supreme Court is weighing their right to fair pay against the profits of an e-commerce Goliath.
In Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk, two Amazon warehouse workers, Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro, argue that they should be paid for time spent undergoing daily security checks, designed to ensure employees don’t leave work with stolen goods. Though the roughly twenty-five minutes they spend on this check each day is not officially clocked, it is mandatory. So Integrity Staffing, Amazon’s warehousing subcontractor, is effectively stealing their wages by not compensating them for this time spent on the tedious routine of removing their wallet and keys and shuffling through a metal detector. Shouldn’t the subcontractor, as part of its “inventory control” operations, be paying workers overtime for the trouble they must go through to prove they’re not thieves?
But business groups, along with the White House, have joined Integrity to contend they have no legal obligation to pay for time spent on post-work security check. They cite the Portal-to-Portal provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which states that the time workers spend on activities considered “preliminary” or “postliminary” to the job is “non-compensable.” So employees need not be compensated for time spent commuting to work, for example. But a health worker in an infectious disease ward would be compensated for time spent suiting up in protective gear.
In oral arguments on Wednesday, Integrity Staffing’s attorney Paul Clement argued the security check is “materially similar to the process of checking out at the end of the day or waiting in line to do so.” But labor advocates argue that for the warehouse workers, the security check is uniquely relevant to the job.
The AFL-CIO contended in its amicus brief, “Like a government contractor’s screening of an employee who handles classified government material, a staffing agency’s post-shift screening of employees who handle the warehouse client’s valuable portable merchandise in order to deter employee theft is similarly ‘directly related to the specific work [they are supposed to] perform.’” In addition, “the deterrence of employee theft ‘is a serious concern’ with significant consequences for employers’ profitability and competitiveness.”