Source: Spencer Soper, Sophia Pearson and Greg Stohr, www.msn.com
Jesse Busk spent a 12-hour shift rushing inventory through an Amazon.com Inc. ("Amazon") warehouse in Nevada to meet quotas... After clocking out, Busk and hundreds of other workers went through an airport-style screening process, including metal detectors, to make sure they weren't stealing from the Web retailer. Getting through the line often took as long as 25 minutes, uncompensated, he and others employed there say...
Those allegations are now before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could help redefine companies' reach over hourly workers. On Wednesday [of last week], the top court will hear arguments related to a suit brought by Busk seeking compensation for his time in the security lines.
Busk's December 2010 lawsuit, against both Amazon and a temp agency that provided staff to Amazon, was among the first to challenge the screening practice. Since then, a dozen similar suits have been filed involving Seattle-based Amazon, and more against other retailers...
If the Supreme Court sides with Busk, his case will be allowed to move forward in a federal trial court. Ultimately, Amazon and various staffing agencies it uses could be required to pay as many as 400,000 workers back wages amounting to $100 million or more, according to plaintiffs' attorneys involved in the case.
...If Amazon prevails, employers could feel emboldened to squeeze more time out of workers without pay, pushing the boundaries of a 67-year-old law that defines what constitutes compensable work.
Amazon doesn't comment on pending litigation, said spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman. "Data shows that employees walk through post-shift security screening with little or no wait," Cheeseman said...
In court filings, Amazon, Integrity and other temporary staffing firms have argued that security-line waits are no different than time spent walking to and from a work area, which courts have determined isn't compensable.
The Supreme Court case is likely to have an impact on several pending lawsuits. Apple Inc., CVS Health Corp., J.C. Penney Co., TJX Cos. and Ross Stores Inc. are all battling court claims involving searches at break times or the end of shifts at distribution centers or stores.
"It's a much bigger deal than just about searches," said Eric Schnapper, a law professor at the University of Washington. "If the court adopts the company's view, it would allow employers to require employees do a variety of tasks once their shift ends."
Seattle-based Amazon, the world's No. 2 online retailer by market capitalization, has built a reputation for selling goods at low prices and delivering them quickly and inexpensively, with tiny margins. That success rides on the company's network of massive warehouses -- more than 40 so-called fulfillment centers in the U.S. alone, according to the company, staffed by 40,000 workers, swelling to 110,000 during the holiday season.
Security checks don't meet that "integral and indispensable" test, the Obama administration has argued to the court. Integrity has taken the same view. Both liken screenings to the process of checking in or checking out, something Labor Department regulations say isn't compensable.
"Waiting in line for a security screening is indistinguishable from many other tasks that have been found non-compensable," Integrity's lawyer, Paul Clement, who was U.S. Solicitor General under George W. Bush, argued in court papers.
The company also points to a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that workers at a meat-processing plant didn't get compensation for time spent waiting to put on their protective gear in a changing room. A separate part of that decision said workers were entitled to pay for time spent walking between the changing room and their workstations.
The Amazon workers contend that compensation is due for any required activity done for the employer's benefit. Attorneys for the workers maintain one of their challenges is to get the court to distinguish between security screenings for weapons, which are done for the overall safety of a community, and anti-theft checks, which are done solely for the employer's benefit.
...When designing a security system, companies have to balance their security needs with their employees' time and convenience, said Barry Brandman, president of Danbee Investigations, a security consulting firm in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Big companies can speed the process by adding check points, maintaining metal detectors and training security personnel to be efficient, he said.
"You don't want to punish 98 percent of the workforce in order to control the 1 or 2 percent who are problems," said Brandman, who said he wasn't familiar with Amazon's warehouse security procedures. "If you're not concerned about employee morale, you're more likely to have security problems."
Counsel to Management: Employers should be aware that waiting time and walking time have been targeted by class action attorneys. It is important that employers either minimize or account for the time that employees spend performing these tasks. For help or questions concerning your company's practices, please contact The Saqui Law Group.