Supreme Court Says Employers Don’t Always Have To Pay Under The FLSA (Really!)

December 11, 2014 | By

What do you know, the Supreme Court has issued another employer-friendly decision on an interesting wage-and-hour issue!  This time, on December 9, 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not require employers to pay employees for the time spent completing post-shift security screens designed to prevent theft.  Needless to say, this decision represents a solid victory for employers and – despite the seemingly narrow issue of post-shift security screening – one that could have a broad reach and favorable implications for employers in the foreseeable future.

In the case, Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, warehouse workers at Amazon had alleged that they spent up to 25 minutes each day waiting in line to complete mandatory security screens after completing their shifts.  The question was whether that time was “integral and indispensable” to the workers’ principal work activities, making it compensable.  Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the Court’s opinion, stating that an activity is not integral and indispensable “unless it is an intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform those activities.”  The Justice continued, “The screenings were not an intrinsic element of retrieving products from warehouse shelves or packaging them for shipment.”  In fact, “Integrity Staffing could have eliminated the screenings altogether without impairing the employees’ ability to complete their work.”

Interestingly, the U.S. Department of Labor supported Integrity Staffing’s position and participated in the oral argument before the Court.  The DOL had reached a similar conclusion in a 1951 Opinion Letter.  Also, the DOL’s regulations support the Court’s decision, stating that under normal conditions, “checking in and out and waiting in line to do so” are not compensable activities (instead, they are “preliminary” or “postliminary” activities).  29 CFR 790.7(g). 

Arguably, the most compelling aspect of this decision is its clarity without a partisan divide (remember, it is a 9-0 decision):  employers can continue to engage in pre- and post-shift screenings to prevent employee theft or even to protect workplace safety, without the fear that long lines or regular waiting time will result in the accrual of liability.  The decision is also noteworthy because the Court shut down the concept that, if the employer “requires” an activity, that alone makes it “integral and indispensable” and therefore compensable under the FLSA.  The Court also said that “a test that turns on whether the activity is for the benefit of the employer is similarly overbroad.”  It is going to be “fun” to see how this decision gets analyzed and used as it filters out around the country in the lower federal courts.  (I know, only an employment lawyer would consider this fun!)