U.S. Supreme Court Says Post-Shift Screenings Are Not “Work”

As an employer, do you have to pay employees for time spent performing non-work tasks? The United States Supreme Court recently addressed this question. The Court rejected a challenge from a group of hourly warehouse employees who argued federal law required the company to pay them for time spent undergoing mandatory security screenings. The justices unanimously agreed the law did not cover this situation.

Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets nationwide standards for the minimum wage and workweek. Any Florida retailer involved in “interstate commerce”—which is just about every business these days—must comply with the FLSA’s requirements. This includes paying employees at least $7.25 ($7.93 in Florida) for each hour of “work” performed.

In 1947, Congress amended the FLSA by passing the “Portal-to-Portal Act,” which excluded certain activities from the definition of “work,” including the time employees spent commuting to their job, as well as any “activities which are preliminary or postliminary” to an employee’s “principal activity.” Employers do not have to employees for any activities falling within these exceptions.

The case before the Supreme Court involved the definition of “postliminary” or after-work activities. A staffing company in Nevada provided warehouse employees for the popular retailer Amazon.com. The staffing company required all employees to “to undergo a security screening before leaving the warehouse at the end of each day,” in order to detect and deter potential theft. Employees were not paid for the time spent waiting for or undergoing this screening.

Two employees sued the staffing company in 2010, arguing the screening constituted an employment activity requiring compensation under the FLSA. A federal judge in Nevada dismissed the complaint, only to be reversed by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The appeals court said the security screening could be defined as “necessary to the principal work performed and done for the benefit of the employer,” and therefore not subject to the normal exemption for postliminary activities stated in the Portal-to-Portal Act.

But the Supreme Court said the Ninth Circuit was wrong. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Clarence Thomas conclusively held, “The security screenings at issue here are noncompensable postliminary activities.” The fact that employees were required to undergo these screenings did not matter, Justice Thomas said. The FLSA and Portal-to-Portal Act only require an employer to pay for activities that are “integral and indispensable” to the employee’s principal duties. Here, the employees were principally charged with “retrieving products from warehouse shelves or packaging them for shipment.” The security screenings were unrelated to those duties. It did not matter, as the employees here alleged, that they spent upwards of 25 minutes per day waiting for the screenings. Justice Thomas said the screening was ultimately not an “intrinsic” part of their actual work.

The Supreme Court’s decision is good news for Florida retailers and other employers who rely on hourly workers. The Court reaffirmed a longstanding principle that “work” means the actual time spent working, not commuting or performing pre- and post-shift tasks. But cases like this demonstrate the constantly evolving nature of employment law. If you need advice on how to comply with the FLSA or applicable Florida labor laws, you should speak with an experienced Florida business attorney. Contact Naples attorney John S. Sarrett today if you have any questions.

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