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Dec 10

Supreme Court Rules Against Amazon Workers

Supreme Court Opinion Employment Law

Posted on December 10, 2014 — by Michael Ely

Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that involved warehouse workers at Amazon.  Apparently, workers at Amazon’s distribution warehouses are required to go through TSA type security screening at the end of their shifts in order to prevent employee theft.  Furthermore, the Plaintiffs in this lawsuit alleged that this screening generally took around 25 minutes.  The gist of this lawsuit was that these hourly workers wanted to be paid by Amazon for this time.

The history of this lawsuit prior to the Supreme Court ruling was that Amazon workers in a Nevada plant brought a lawsuit in Federal District Court.  Prior to any jury deciding the case, the District Judge dismissed the case.  The Appellate Court then reversed, allowing the lawsuit to continue.  However, yesterday’s Supreme Court decision permanently ended the lawsuit.

Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court.  The Court’s opinion was based on a couple of old Federal Statutes, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the Portal to Portal Act of 1947.  The Court held that the standard for determining whether or not a work activity is compensable was whether the activity was indispensable to the performance of the job.  The Court also reviewed prior cases that had ruled on this issue, including the Court’s prior ruling that a butcher’s time sharpening his/her knives were indispensable and that time was compensable; the Court’s prior ruling that the time spent by worker’s at a battery plant rinsing off toxic chemicals after their shift was compensable; and the Court’s ruling that chicken plant workers’ waiting in line to put on their protective gear was not compensable because it was two steps removed from the actual work (time putting on the suits was compensable but not the time waiting in line to do so).

In the present case, the Appellate Court that allowed the lawsuit held that the act of waiting in line to be screened was compensable because the employer was requiring the employees to be screened by security.  However, the Supreme Court held that the Appellate Court was concentrating on the wrong issue and that the “indispensable” test was the proper inquiry.  The Supreme Court further held that because the security screenings was not an indispensable part of filling orders, the Amazon workers were not entitled to compensation for time spent during those screenings.

From my point of view, this is one of those cases that the Court’s decision was proper but unfair.  While that seems to be contradictory, it is actually a perfect example of when the law is not fair.  The way that Congress worded this law, the Court’s finding was probably correct.  However, from a human perspective, this decision was unfair.  If a company distrusts its employees and makes them go through security screenings at the end of every shift, then they should be forced to pay employees for that time. 

Everyone remembers those government lessons from grade school; the legislature makes the laws, the executive branch enforces the laws and the judiciary interprets the laws.  While a skeptic might point out that the Judiciary does more than just interpret laws and is an especially politically motivated branch that consistently makes new law, this is one of those cases that seems to fall into that grade school government lesson paradigm.  Maybe it is time for Congress to amend those ancient labor statutes to reflect the current working environment.

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