SCOTUS Rules Screening Hours not Billable | DCR Workforce Blog

SCOTUS Rules Screening Hours not Billable

SCOTUS RulesIn a 9-0 ruling that can be considered controversial, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has said that workers at an Amazon warehouse facility need not be compensated for the 25 minutes they spend undergoing a security screening at the end of their shift.

The salient arguments underlying the ruling are that:

  • The additional time is taken by the court to be integral and indispensable to the warehouse work of taking packages off shelves and prepping them for delivery.
  • The security screening is mandatory for all workers at the warehouse.
  • The screening takes nearly 25 minutes or more, every day – as the workers may have to wait their turn to undergo the screening, which is manned by third party vendors.
  • The focus of the decision is not based on whether the employer requires the activity. The court ruled that compensation should be tied to the productive work that the employee is employed to perform. Time spent on activities like sharpening knives before starting a meatpacking task or showering after being exposed to toxic chemicals on the job are considered billable; but not the time spent on being screened for possibly committing theft on the job.
  • The screening only establishes the fact that the worker has not stolen any goods from the warehouse, and the screening is actually conducted at a cost to the employer. Eliminating or not participating in the screening does not impact the workers’ performance or productivity.

So, the time spent removing one’s wallet, keys and belts to pass a metal detector; and waiting in line to undergo screening fails to qualify as billable time, because the screening time is not actually spent on any productive labor.

The precedent for this decision was a case in 1947, the Portal-to-Portal Act. In that case, the court established that time spent travelling between the underground portals of a mine to report to was not billable back The judges ruled that the security searches were similar to waiting in line to check in and out of work or traveling to and from their place of work.

This ruling undermines the claims of over 400,000 plaintiffs, whose class-action suits are pending in 13 different cases.

This ruling is disputed using the following arguments:

  • This is time a worker spends doing an activity, required (and insisted upon, under threats of termination) by the employer.
  • It is productive because it eliminates all temptation to pilfer items, saving big money in goods not stolen.
  • Making it a mandatory requirement of the job could be construed to mean that the principal activity is ‘warehouse work and screening for theft’. It is an essential activity not because the warehouse work cannot be performed; it is essential because it cannot be performed profitably.
  • The Portal-to-Portal Act, which provides the definition of activities that an employer has to pay for, was last interpreted in 1956 and was originally passed in 1947. It may not be reflective of today’s working conditions.
  • The worker may report to work on time; but loses all control afterwards – due to the time taken for security screening.
  • SCOTUS dropped its own belief dating back to the 1940s that workers must be paid for all the time necessarily spent at their work premises, because their employers required it.

Employee theft is an unfortunate reality of the retail industry. Retail workers are always in a position where they could steal expensive items and sell them elsewhere. It is common for the industry to have surveillance cameras and constant monitoring of the video feed from them.

If it is true that the screening line at Amazon takes up 90 seconds or less from the employees; this whole case may have been much ado about nothing. If not, it is to be seen how matters progress from here; Amazon’s workers are not represented by a union that would address this issue within the context of a collective bargaining agreement.

It is also to be seen what this ruling means for other employers like Apple whose workers undergo “voluntary screening”. Apple said the screening is not mandatory unless the worker brings in a bag or Apple gear to work; in the first place. However, workers seem to disagree. They have filed a lawsuit claiming back pay for time spent in screening lines. In today’s business environment, where firmly established work schedules are often non-existent, the confusion regarding when one is “at work” is increasing. In these cases, where an employee reports to a work facility but must perform a number of tasks outside of their assigned responsibilities, we can expect additional litigation as workers and employers attempt to establish these boundaries.

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.