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U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in Amazon wage-and-hour case

Most of us have had at least one job in the past that came with some unpaid responsibilities before and after work. Take commuting, for instance. In most cases, your employer does not have to pay you for the time you spend getting to work and getting home, regardless of whether it takes you five minutes or two hours.

A 1947 law called the “Portal-to-Portal Act” specifies that companies do not have to pay their employees for “preliminary” or “postliminary work.” Essentially, if it happens before or after the work day, it is unpaid. The notable exception is if the work is deemed an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed,” according to a 1956 ruling. In a case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month, Justices are considering how the original law and the 1956 court decision should be interpreted in a modern-day context.

The wage-and-hour case concerns workers at an Amazon.com warehouse in Las Vegas. The workers are hired through a temp agency and paid for the hours that they work. But at the end of the day, Amazon subjects all employees to a security screening before they leave. This is to ensure that no employees are engaging in merchandise theft. The entire screening process can take up to 25 minutes, and the workers believe they should be paid for this time.

Amazon and similar employers have a financial incentive for preventing theft. As such, it is not necessarily unreasonable for them to screen every employee on the way out. However, for workers who probably already make low wages and who get treated as a potential thief after every shift, the burden of extra, unpaid time may be unreasonable.

It will be interesting to hear what the Supreme Court’s ruling on this issue will be. Needless to say, it will likely have national implications for workers in low-wage positions.

Source: The New York Times, “Court Hears Case on Pay for Amazon Workers Screened After Work,” Adam Liptak, Oct. 8, 2014

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