By Sam Hananel
WASHINGTON — Workers who fill customer orders for Internet retailer Amazon might be out of luck in their quest to be paid for time they spend going through security checkpoints each day.
Several Supreme Court justices expressed doubts Wednesday during arguments over whether federal law entitles workers to compensation for security measures to prevent employee theft.
The case is being watched closely by business groups concerned that employers could be liable for billions of dollars in retroactive pay for security check procedures that have become routine in retail and other industries.
The dispute involves two former workers at a Nevada warehouse who say their employer, Integrity Staffing Solutions Inc., made them to wait up to 25 minutes in security lines at the end of every shift. Integrity provides staffers for Amazon warehouses.
Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman says the company’s data shows that warehouse employees walk through security screenings “with little or no wait.”
A federal appeals court ruled last year that the workers, Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro, deserved to be paid because the anti-theft screenings were necessary to the primary work performed by warehouse workers and it was done for the employer’s benefit.
Mark Thierman, lawyer for the workers, ran into trouble Wednesday when he tried to pursue the argument that walking through security was a principal activity of the workers’ job duties that requires compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“But no one’s principal activity is going through security screenings,” said Chief Justice John Roberts. “It may be part of that, that you go through security at the end of the day, but that doesn’t make it a principal activity.”
Thierman argued that the screening was a “discrete act” that happened only after workers had clocked out and handed in their tools.
Integrity claims no extra pay is required because the security clearances are unrelated to the workers’ core job duties. The company’s attorney, Paul Clement, said the screenings are “materially similar to the process of checking out at the end of the day or waiting to do so.”
Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say that security screenings are essential to prevent employee theft, which costs the retail industry an estimated $16 billion a year.