Ver la versión en español aquí

Yesterday, employers gained an important victory in the ongoing wave of litigation over what time is or is not considered compensable work time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers are not required to pay employees for the time spent waiting to clear anti-theft security screenings at the end of their shift.

This particular case involved warehouse workers whose primary job was to retrieve and package products for delivery to Amazon customers. These employees were required to pass through security screenings and metal detectors at the conclusion of their shift to prevent employee theft of merchandise. The employees claimed that these post-shift screenings could take as long as 25 minutes primarily due to long lines caused by a large number of employees clocking out at roughly the same time. These screenings were mandatory for all warehouse employees.

The employees sued claiming they should be paid for the time spent waiting to complete these mandatory security screenings because the screenings were for the exclusive benefit of the company. The employees also claimed that the company could have taken steps to decrease this waiting time by adding more security screeners or by staggering when shifts ended so that employees could pass through the checkpoints more quickly. Yet, the company failed to take such measures.

In a unanimous decision (which is a rare occurrence in itself), the Supreme Court found that the company was not required to pay employees for this waiting time. The Court held that the time spent waiting to pass these security checkpoints was not “integral and indispensable” to the employees’ duties as warehouse workers. In other words, the employees’ primary job – to retrieve and pack products from the warehouse – was not impacted by this mandatory screening. If the company chose to do so, it could have eliminated the mandated security screening without impacting the employees’ ability to do their job. The Court expressly rejected the argument that just because the company mandated these screenings meant that the time spent was “integral and indispensable” to the employees’ job.

While there is certainly reason for employers to rejoice, this holding is not a blanket rule as to all pre or post shift activities. Unfortunately, not all activities that employees must perform either before or after their shift are created equal. The Court noted earlier decisions where employers were required to pay employees for time spent performing certain pre or post shift tasks. For example, battery plant workers who are required to shower and perform other decontamination tasks following their shifts must be paid for this time as these tasks were required for the employees’ safety. Another example cited was a butcher having to spend time before his shift sharpening knives so that he could perform his work more efficiently. Once again, such time would be compensable under the Court’s analysis.

Before implementing a policy as to whether certain pre or post shift tasks will be paid, employers should consider that courts typically rely on factual distinctions or nuances in reaching these decisions. Regardless, this opinion should provide employers with some much needed guidance in today’s world of heightened security.