The Supreme Court’s Amazon Warehouse Workers Decision and its Impact in Maryland

by Joseph M. Creed
December 19th, 2014

 

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that federal law does not require that warehouse workers who package goods for Amazon be paid for the time they spend going through mandatory security screenings at the end of their shifts. These warehouse workers are required to go through a screening process—which is intended to prevent theft and can sometimes take as long as 25 minutes—before they are permitted to leave for the day. The Court ruled that the workers are not legally entitled to be paid for that time. Predictably, there has been strong reaction to the ruling, with some calling it a slap in the face to America’s blue-collar workers and others calling on Congress to change the law.

Despite the strong reaction, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Amazon warehouse workers case might have little impact in Maryland and other states with similar labor laws. Although the decision is the final word on the issue under federal law, it does not dictate state law. In Maryland, state law would likely require an employer to pay employees for time spent in mandatory security screenings and other mandatory, onsite tasks. This post will give an overview of the Supreme Court’s decision and look at how Maryland state law differs.

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The Amazon warehouse workers case

            The case of Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk was brought by a group of warehouse workers against their employer, Integrity Staffing Solutions, which provides warehouse staffing nationwide for Amazon.com. The plaintiffs were employed at a warehouse in Nevada, where they processed and packaged goods to be shipped to Amazon customers. The employees claimed that every day they were required to undergo a mandatory security screening procedure before they were permitted to leave the facility at the end of their shifts. The purpose of the screening was to ensure that the employees were not stealing any of the products they were employed to package for Amazon. The employees claimed that they were required to stand in lines, remove items from their persons (such as wallets, watches, etc.), and go through metal detectors. The process could take up to 25 minutes. The employees sued for unpaid wages, arguing that the warehouse was required to pay them for the time spent going through the mandatory security screening and that it had failed to do so.

            In a rare unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the employees are not entitled to compensation for the time spent going through the required screening process. The Court’s decision was based on the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Generally, the FLSA requires that employers pay at least the federal minimum wage to employees for all hours worked, as well as overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a week. In another federal statute, the Portal-to-Portal Act, Congress limited the wage-payment requirement, legislating that employers are not required to compensate employees for tasks that are “preliminary to or postliminary to [the] principal activity or activities” of the job.

            This means that, although employers are required to pay employees for all hours they work, they are generally not required to pay them for preliminary or “postliminary” activities, such as commuting to and from work. The Supreme Court has held that the issue of whether an activity is compensable work or noncompensable preliminary or postliminary activity turns on the question of whether the activity is an “integral and indispensable” part of the job. The question under the FLSA is whether the task is an “intrinsic element” of the “principal activities” of the job “and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities.” By way of example, the Supreme Court has held that a meatpacker’s time spent sharpening knives is “integral and indispensible” to the job. By contrast, a poultry plant employee’s time spent putting on and removing protective gear was held not to be “integral and indispensible” to that job.

            In the Amazon warehouse workers case, the Court ruled that the employees’ time spent going through the mandatory security screening process was not “integral and indispensible” to the job. As the Court explained, “Integrity Staffing did not employ its workers to undergo security screenings, but to retrieve products from warehouse shelves and package those products for shipment to Amazon customers.” The Court concluded that the security screenings constitute “postliminary” activities for which the FLSA does not require compensation.

How Maryland law differs

            The FLSA is not the only law that governs wage payment. Like many states, Maryland has its own version of the FLSA, known as the Maryland Wage and Hour Law. Like the federal FLSA, Maryland labor law requires employers to pay employees a minimum wage for all hours worked,[1] as well as time-and-a-half for any hours worked over 40 in a week.[2] Unlike the FLSA, which defines compensable work as tasks that are deemed “integral and indispensable” to the “principal activities” of the job, Maryland law defines it more broadly.

The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation defined “hours of work” under Maryland law to include time during which an employee “is required by the employer to be on the employer’s premises, on duty, or at a prescribed workplace.” Under this standard, if an employer requires an employee to remain at the employer’s premises or at a prescribed workplace for any reason—which would presumably include security screenings—the time is considered “hours of work” that must be compensated under Maryland law.[3]

Although, according to the Supreme Court, the screening process at the Amazon factory is not an “integral and indispensible” part of the job, it is undisputed that the employees were actually required to undergo the screening before they could leave the warehouse for the day. It would appear that, for purposes of the security screening, the employer required the employees to be “on the employer’s premises” and “at a prescribed workplace.” In that case, the screening process would be considered “hours of work” under Maryland law. Any warehouse located in Maryland with a similarly policy would likely be required to pay its workers for the time spent in the mandatory screening process.

Wage and hour law, like employment law generally, is a complex patchwork of federal and state statutes and regulations. Employer policies that are appropriate under federal law might not comport with state law, or vice versa. Prudent employers will consider not only the FLSA, but also state laws regarding wage and hour policies to ensure compliance.

 


[1] Md. Code, Labor & Empl. § 3-413.

[2] Md. Code, Labor & Empl. § 3-415.

[3] It might be argued that the FLSA preempts state law on this issue. The FLSA contains a “savings clause” that expressly allows for state laws that establish a higher minimum wage or shorter work week. The savings provision does not address the definition of “work” or “hours of work.” However, courts that have considered the issue have concluded that the FLSA established “a national floor with which state law must comply, and that “state laws that provide the same or greater protection than that provided by the FLSA are consistent with the federal statutory scheme and are thus not preempted.” Sarrazin v. Coastal, Inc., 89 A.3d 841, 852 (Conn. 2014).

 

Joe Creed is an attorney in Joseph, Greenwald & Laake’s Civil Litigation and Labor & Employment Groups. He is a knowledgeable advisor and skilled advocate for federal employees in all aspects of employment law. He is the author of “Employment Rights of Federal Employees,” a chapter in the Maryland Employment Law Deskbook.

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