by Randall Sutton – Employment Law & Litigation Practice Group
Chalk up a wage and hour win for employers in a U.S. Supreme Court case decided today. The issue was whether employees who are required to wait in line at a security checkpoint before leaving work should be paid for the time they spend standing around. The Court held that the time spent waiting should be considered unpaid travel time to/from the employee’s job.
In this case, the employees worked for a company that helps Amazon.com retrieve products from warehouse shelves. At the end of each day, the workers would typically spend around 25 minutes in line waiting to go through a security checkpoint. The employer mandated the security check to protect against employee theft. The workers felt like the wait was unnecessarily long, and that the employer could have hired more security personnel to speed the process up. The workers also argued that the time spent standing around on company premises was for the sole benefit of the employer, so the time should be compensable.
The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. The Court focused on the “Portal to Portal Act,” a wage & hour reform law enacted way back in 1947. The Act was intended to address recent court decisions at that time, which required employers to pay for nearly all time an employee spent at the employer’s premises. Evaluating the purpose of the Act, the Court found that for every job, there is a certain amount of time before and after work that doesn’t further the specific duties of the job the employee is hired to do, and should therefore not be compensable, even though the wait was mandated by the employer.
This was not the first time the Court evaluated the scope of the Portal to Portal Act. In prior cases, the Court has found that some tasks performed before and after work are essential to the employee’s job. For example, the Court cited cases where battery-plant employees were required to shower and change clothes to eliminate exposure to toxic chemicals, or time meatpacking employees spent sharpening knives so they could cut meat more quickly. In cases such as these, the tasks were integral to the duties of the job, and were therefore compensable even though the task occurred before or after work.
Using somewhat circular reasoning, the Court reached a different result for the employees standing in the security checkpoint line. Because standing in line at the security check was not an essential part of the employee’s job, and the employer could have eliminated those duties if it wanted to and still gotten the work done, the Court held that the waiting time should not be compensable.
In reaching its decision, the Court specifically found that just because a task is required by the employer and is conducted at the workplace does not make the task compensable. Rather, at least as to tasks performed at the beginning and end of the work day, a compensable task must be “integral and indispensable” to the particular job the employee has been hired to do. The Court further found that even though it was within the employer’s power to reduce the employees’ waiting time, the employer is not obligated to take particular steps to minimize an employee’s Portal to Portal time.
The outcome of this case further illustrates why wage and hour law is complicated, full of exceptions and conditions, and not easily explained through the exercise of common sense. For these reasons, we strongly encourage our clients to audit their wage and hour compliance practices. Unfortunately, although the wage and hour laws are highly complex, they are also strictly enforced, and small violations can quickly create big liability.
If you have any questions about this court decision or any other employment matter, or if you would like our office to audit your wage and hour compliance practices, please contact Randall Sutton or David Briggs. The information contained in this report is current as of December 9, 2014, and is not intended as legal advice. This information is considered accurate but is not guaranteed.
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