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All in a Day's Work® - Insights on Labor & Employment Law

No shelling out for security screenings

The United States Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that Amazon employees who were required to undergo a security screening before leaving work each day were not entitled to compensation for the time spent undergoing the screening.

The case, Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, turned on the Court’s interpretation of the Portal to Portal Act, which amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by limiting the broad interpretation of “work” and “work day.” The Portal-to-Portal Act exempts employers from liability when an employee claims compensation based on “activities which are preliminary to or postliminary” (i.e. activities at the beginning and end of the employee’s work day) to the employee’s “principal activities.” Principal activities, on the other hand, must be compensated. “Principal activities” include all activities that are integral and indispensable: “an intrinsic element of the employee’s principal activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities.”

In ruling that the security screenings were non-compensable postliminary activities, Justice Clarence Thomas clarified that the principal activities “integral and indispensable” test does not hinge on whether an employer requires the employee to engage in an activity; rather, the test depends on whether the activity “is tied to the productive work that the employee is employed to perform.” The security screenings were not an “intrinsic element of retrieving products from warehouse shelves or packaging them for shipment.” The security screenings were therefore non-compensable postliminary activities.

The Court also explained that its decision was consistent with prior Department of Labor opinion letters stating that employee time spent undergoing screenings to prevent theft and to ensure employees did not carry items into work that could affect their safety was not compensable.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned that the Court’s unanimous decision had a limited reach. She explained that employee activities related to worker safety and efficiency are compensable activities. For example, meatpackers must be paid for the time they spend sharpening their knives because dull knives will impact the packers’ productivity. Likewise, battery plant workers cannot perform their work safely without changing into and out of protective gear (due to chemicals used to make batteries) and must be paid for donning and doffing the gear. In this case, the warehouse employees at Amazon could perform their work activities safely and efficiently regardless of whether they underwent a security screening.

So what’s the takeaway? To avoid costly litigation, employers should carefully consider whether any of the activities performed by their employees before and after the workday is compensable or whether the activities are non-compensable under the Court’s ruling.

December 30, 2014

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