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Supreme Court Finds Post-Shift Security Check Time Not Compensable

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a highly-anticipated ruling in the case of Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, No. 13-433 (Dec. 9, 2014, Thomas, C.). 

The Integrity case presented a putative class action brought by two Nevada warehouse workers employed by an Amazon.com staffing contractor alleging the employer violated the FLSA and state law by failing to pay them for the approximately 25 minutes each day they spent both waiting to undergo and actually undergoing anti-theft screenings.  During such anti-theft screenings, employees were required to remove wallets, keys, and belts, and pass through metal detectors.  The employees claimed that this time spent on the anti-theft checks was solely for the benefit of the employer, in that its goal was employee theft deterrence, and that the time was, therefore, compensable.  

A Nevada district court dismissed the claims, ruling the screening time was not compensable.  The case was partly revived by a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, which held that the workers had stated an FLSA wage claim for the security screenings because they sufficiently alleged that the screenings were “integral and indispensable” to their main duties.  Integrity appealed the decision of the Ninth Circuit arguing that the holding could not be squared with the plain text of the Portal-to-Portal Act, which exempts employers from liability for activities which are “preliminary and postliminary” to a worker’s principal duties.

The Supreme Court – consistent with the district court’s analysis – ruled unanimously that the security screenings at issue were noncompensable postliminary activities.  In so ruling, the Court distinguished the principal activities of the employees – retrieving and packaging products for shipment to Amazon.com customers – from the mechanics of waiting for and undergoing security screenings.  The Court further found that the security screenings were not “integral and indispensable” to the employees’ duties as warehouse workers.  As reasoned by the Court:

[A]n activity is not integral and indispensable to an employee’s principal activities unless it is an intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform those activities.  The screenings were not an intrinsic element of retrieving products from warehouse shelves or packaging them for shipment.  And Integrity Staffing could have eliminated the screenings altogether without impairing the employees’ ability to complete their work.

574 U.S. ___, 2014 U.S. LEXIS 8293, *13 (2014).

In its holding, the Court also overruled other, sometimes conflicting, standards used by various Courts of Appeal, such as evaluating the compensability of activities based on whether those activities are required by the employer or primarily for the benefit of the employer.  The High Court explained, “[t]he integral and indispensable test is tied to the productive work that the employee is employed to perform.  If the test could be satisfied merely by the fact that an employer required an activity, it would sweep into ‘principal activities’ the very activities that the Portal-to-Portal Act was designed to address.”  Id. at *14-15 (emphasis in original; internal citations omitted)  The Court similarly explained, “[a] test that turns on whether the activity is for the benefit of the employer is similarly overbroad.”  Id.  Furthermore, the employees’ argument that the employer could have reduced the amount of time required for the security screenings was inapposite.  “The fact that an employer could conceivably reduce the time spent by employees on any preliminary or postliminary activity does not change the nature of the activity or its relationship to the principal activities that an employee is employed to perform.”  Id. at *16.  The Court explained, “[t]hese arguments are properly presented to the employer at the bargaining table, see 29 U. S. C. §254(b)(1), not to a court in an FLSA claim.”  Id.

The High Court’s decision is a resounding rejection of the Ninth Circuit’s holding, the first ever Court of Appeal to hold that such screenings constitute compensable time, and a decision which sparked a number of similar lawsuits against various retailers nationwide.  The Court’s ruling clarifies and confirms the standard to use when applying the Portal-to-Portal Act going forward, making clear that an inquiry should focus on whether an employee is capable of performing his or her primary activities if the preliminary or postliminary duties were eliminated.  If an employee’s ability to complete their primary activities is unaffected by the existence or nonexistence of the preliminary or postliminary duties, those preliminary or postliminary activities are not compensable under the FLSA.   

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