Amazon is Avoiding Paying its Workers During Required Job Activities

By: Trey Heller & CJ Rosenbaum

Many of Amazon’s lawsuits dating back to nearly a decade ago involve employees who allege that the company will not pay them for their time undergoing mandatory security screenings.

Amazon’s Warehouse Workers Must Walk to and Wait in Line for Screenings Without Being Paid

Nearly twelve years ago, Amazon faced a lawsuit from a former warehouse employee regarding a particular workplace practice.[1] The practice in question was mandatory security screenings done on the warehouse workers to ensure that they weren’t stealing items in storage. The former employee, being represented along with other Amazon warehouse workers in court, often walk long distances from their posts to have these screenings done and wait in long lines at the screening site. None of the workers were paid during the entire screening process despite being required to complete the process every time they enter and exit the facility.

The former employee, as well as other former employees with similar accusations, took the case to the Supreme Court in 2014, arguing that Amazon should be compensating the warehouse workers for this regularly required activity. However, the Supreme Court ruled in Amazon’s favor, stating that the company was not required to pay its workers during screenings. The case is now known as Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk.[2] The main argument made by the Supreme Court justices in this case was that the security screening process was not an integral part of many warehouse workers’ jobs, and so they were not entitled to be paid during them. Since then, Amazon has reportedly shortened the time required for these screenings such that most of the time no waiting is necessary. But the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a debate surrounding this issue once more, and many current and former Amazon employees are suing over their lack of pay while completing their screenings, which are now much more complicated and lengthy than before.

“If an employee is working or performing a required activity for its employer, it should be compensable time.” -CJ

A group of former warehouse workers in California have sued Amazon over their lack of pay during these screenings, now modified due to the impact of the pandemic. Amazon has sought to get the case tossed due to their claim that the screenings are a necessary preventive measure in response to the pandemic, and thus their workers do not need to be paid while completing them. Amazon is not alone in implementing these safety screenings; many other large Fortune 500 companies, including CVS and Apple, utilize similar screenings, but are required to pay their employees according to California state law. Federal law, as mentioned before, does not mandate that workers are paid during safety screenings. However, both CVS and Apple are settling their own lawsuits with workers who were not paid during their screenings.[3]


How is Amazons case unique?

The size of Amazon in terms of number of employees makes their case more interesting and unique, however. Amazon currently employs nearly 1.3 million people at various levels. Additionally, Amazon has a high turnover rate, with the company cycling through the equivalent of its entire workforce every eight months.[4] This means that a large portion of the world’s workforce is available to work for Amazon and be subject to their policies. Another similarly-sized company, Walmart, won a Supreme Court case in 2011 which effectively made it harder for employees to file lawsuits against their employer as a class.[5] As a result, Amazon has a distinct advantage as a represented party in these types of legal matters. This has played to Amazon’s benefit numerous times, especially as the company continues to face legal action from employees over issues such as unfair pay, unsafe workplace practices, and workplace discrimination. Firings over Amazon’s confusing policies have been referred to internally by the blanket term “unregretted attrition,” with spokespeople for the company stating that employees are not discouraged from raising concerns about their treatment.[6][7] However, many employees have spoken about being terminated after raising their concerns in the past and the present.

But as Amazon continues to face litigation, more litigation follows and will continue to follow from other classes of former workers, and Amazon has taken many of these cases to court instead of settling. Amazon’s willingness and ability to defend itself in court, as well as the size and scope of their company’s workforce, means that Amazon can set more precedents in court which can further put employees at a disadvantage when they sue and when they work. Additionally, the many internal issues facing the company means that they are subject to legal action regarding a large number of their unpopular practices. Again, these cases play out similar to cases involving Walmart, another major American company with a large number of employees.[8]


Complaints made against Amazon

When Busk was first filed in 2010, Amazon employees alleged that the time required for their security screenings was between 10 and 15 minutes. After the proceedings, Amazon appeared to have sped up the screening process, a change seemingly correlated to an appeals court ruling which stated that the company must pay its employees for the screenings under federal law. Recent court filings show Amazon saying that they have sped up the screening process further such that screenings take little to no time at all, with employees waiting very little or not at all.

The warehouse workers in California, however, have stated in their court filing that the screening process now takes nearly 20 minutes. Additionally, employees are often required to work longer hours and overtime at specific times of the year, such as Prime Day, which means they are subject to extra security screenings, as they are screened for each day of work, which is defined as 10 hours on the clock. A second group of California-based Amazon workers are suing for similar reasons, stating that the company often makes them take long walks and wait in line during their time off to complete the screenings. These workers allege that Amazon has failed to provide them with real breaks and meal time despite California state law stating that employers have no control over their employees during break or meal time. Instead, they must walk across warehouses up to 1 million square feet in area to reach their break rooms or get screened, which leaves them with less than 10 minutes for a break, which is the legal minimum time allowed for breaks. More time is taken from them during lunch breaks as well, as they must undergo screenings before they leave the facility.[9]


Result of court proceedings

In court, the presiding federal judge largely agreed with Amazon. He concurred with Amazon’s statements that workers were getting their full allotted break time despite needing to undergo screenings, but the screening processes vary at each facility and thus this particular case was not regarded as a commonality at all Amazon facilities in California. This is due to the claim made by Amazon that many employees spend virtually no time undergoing screenings, with some facilities not even having metal detectors. The workers must pursue a higher court ruling in order to win a judgment on these claims. Furthermore, according to the Supreme Court, the federal Portal-to-Portal Law dictates that Amazon is not required to pay its workers during security checks. This law states that employees are not required to be paid for tasks done at the beginning or the end of their shifts unless it is part of their main job duties. Amazon argued successfully in court that security screenings have no effect on job performance or workplace safety the same way that putting on personal protective equipment is for a scientist or medical professional.[10]


The downfalls of a non-union workplace 

It isn’t just Amazon workers in California that are frustrated with their employer’s screening policies, however. Jennifer Bates, a warehouse worker in Alabama, was subject to a random security check when leaving her post for a break and given no extra time off. This incident spurred Bates to join the effort to unionize alongside her coworkers.[11] The union vote eventually failed in April 2021. This means that Amazon employees must take up their issues with management or sue in court without union representation. This adds further complications as Amazon has been shown to retaliate against employees for speaking out against their policies either through direct confrontation or nonviolent protest. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Union is seeking to have the results of the Alabama Amazon union election thrown out in order to give the workers these protections.

This issue was a key component of the Busk case, as Chief Justice John Roberts questioned why the employees can’t ask for a higher wage in order to compensate for the lost pay during security screenings. Their attorney, Mark Thiermann, argued that this was virtually impossible, since they were non-union workers with no leverage to negotiate with.[12] As Amazon’s workers continue to put up with unusual workplace practices, lose legal leverage in court, and lose negotiating leverage without unionization, attempts to create a safer and more ethical workplace become more challenging. Amazon and its controversial policies are not a secret and have been in the spotlight for a very long time, but the large company has become increasingly difficult to go against in a court of law. However, Amazon’s employees still deserve better. The issues the company faces cannot be ignored and must be resolved completely.