THE BLOG
10/08/2014 02:27 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

SCOTUS Must Side With Amazon Workers, Rule Against Preposterous Unpaid Time Requirement

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The practice of not paying people for the time their employers require them to be at work was outlawed three-quarters of a century ago. Nevertheless, today the Supreme Court begins to hear arguments in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk et al., which asks whether the Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers to refuse to pay workers for the time they spend performing employer-required duties after their shift ends, but before they are allowed to leave for the day.

Amazon contractor Integrity Staffing, a national firm with annual revenues exceeding $360 million, says it does, and shockingly, so does the United States. They argue the FLSA does not apply to time spent on pre- or post-shift tasks an employer imposes and benefits from, unless those activities are "integral and indispensable" to the workers' "principal activities." In the absence of that "integral and indispensable" connection, employees simply must donate that time to their employers -- regardless of the duty the employer imposes, the method prescribed by the employer, or the time it takes to complete the task.

At issue in Integrity Staffing Solutions is the firm's refusal to pay the warehouse workers for the time spent in a mandatory post-shift anti-theft screening required by Amazon, which takes as long as 25 minutes a day, or as much as two-plus hours each week, per worker. For low-wage workers whose ability to make ends meet is "integrally and indispensably" connected to what they earn for the time they spend doing what their employer requires of them, this mandatory unpaid labor can have real and costly consequences. Extra fees for late pick-up at child care are common, as is docked pay for tardy arrival at a second job. A just-missed bus can mean getting home too late, paying a higher fare during non-premium hours, or using more expensive transit to make it in time to put the kids to bed. Workers can thus be doubly-penalized, spending time without pay to complete the extra task, and incurring more costs elsewhere because of the extra time their employer required.

These consequences are harsh enough, but the rule the company and the government want the Court to adopt has even more far-reaching implications: It would give companies carte blanche to impose uncompensated pre- and post-shift duties on any worker paid by the hour, so long as the activities didn't meet the "integral and indispensable" standard. What's to stop hospitals from requiring nurses to do end-of-day unpaid garbage collection from patients' rooms? How about requiring auto mechanics to wash shop owners' cars after hours, an unpaid chore mechanics couldn't refuse without jeopardizing their jobs? Why not make a construction crew spend time after their shifts buffing up landscaping around a building, at no cost to those who impose and benefit from the requirement -- the contractor or building owner -- but of no benefit to the workers stuck with the unpaid labor?

The rule Integrity Staffing and the government propose is preposterous, and its potential consequences grossly unfair and untenable for the 76 million U.S. workers paid by the hour. Limiting employers' wage payment obligation only to time spent on tasks "integral and indispensable" to the workers' principal activities may boost the corporate bottom line. But it will also further undermine the incomes and economic security of tens of millions of workers and their families and dampen even more the consumer spending on which our economy relies.

The administration has rightly stressed that workers' wages are too low and has taken important steps to boost workers' earnings, including executive orders and vigorous advocacy for a higher minimum wage and expanded overtime pay protections. And the Labor Department is aggressively tackling rampant wage theft among low wage workers, who experience unusually high rates of minimum wage and overtime pay violations. Regrettably, the government's position in Integrity Staffing Solutions is likely to exacerbate, rather than improve, the very conditions the Administration is trying to address.

The decades-long assault on workers' wages has inflicted a heavy toll: The middle class is smaller and poorer than a few decades ago, and the ranks of the working poor are growing. The last thing working families, our economy or our nation need now is for employers to get a green light from the Supreme Court to demand more of their workers' time without having to pay for it.

Christine L. Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project.