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Amazon workers must be paid for security checks - Penn. top court

4 minute read

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

  • State wage law broader than federal law
  • No exception for small amounts of time spent in screenings
  • Amazon workers in Nevada, Arizona won similar rulings

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(Reuters) - The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday said Amazon.com Inc should have paid warehouse workers for time they spent in security screenings after their shifts, finding that state wage law is broader than the federal statute that does not require such pay.

The court in a 5-2 decision said Pennsylvania law defines "hours worked" as any time during which a worker is required to be on an employer's premises, and that included the few minutes each day that workers spent in security checks at Amazon's Breinigsville, Pennsylvania warehouse.

The court rejected claims by Amazon and its lawyers at Morgan Lewis & Bockius that because time spent in security checks did not amount to labor or toil, it should not be considered part of an employee's "workweek" that is compensable under state law.

The majority also held that Pennsylvania law does not recognize an exemption when workers are under an employer's control for a very small, or "de minimis," amount of time.

The case came to the court on certified questions from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has heard several similar cases against Amazon that were consolidated in multidistrict litigation in Kentucky.

In 2018, the 6th Circuit said Amazon had to pay warehouse workers for security screenings under Arizona and Nevada law.

Seattle-based Amazon and its lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did Peter Winebrake of Winebrake & Santillo, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the proposed class action.

In their 2013 lawsuit, the plaintiffs said they spent an average of four to eight minutes going through security screenings after their shifts ended. By not paying them for that time, Amazon violated minimum wage and overtime requirements in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and state law, they said.

In the 2014 case Integrity Staffing Solutions Inc v. Busk, which involved Amazon warehouse workers in Nevada, the U.S. Supreme Court said security checks are not compensable under the FLSA because they are incidental to workers' primary job duties.

But many state wage laws are phrased differently than the FLSA. Pennsylvania law, for example, says workers must be paid for "time during which an employee is required by the employer to be on the premises of the employer, to be on duty or to be at the prescribed work place."

In Wednesday's case, however, a federal judge in Kentucky in 2018 said that because Pennsylvania law did not expressly repudiate the FLSA, the federal standard applied and Amazon workers did not have to be paid. The 6th Circuit in 2019 asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to step in.

On Wednesday, the majority said Pennsylvania lawmakers also never explicitly incorporated the FLSA into state wage law, even though it has been amended six times since its initial passage in 1968.

That showed that state law was distinct from the FLSA, and the broad definition included in the law was plainly designed to include any time that Amazon workers were required to be in the warehouse, the court said.

And because state law requires payment for "all hours worked," there is no exception for "de minimis" amounts of time, Justice Debra Todd wrote.

In dissent, Justice Thomas Saylor said the court never should have accepted certified questions from the 6th Circuit because of factual disputes in the case, including whether employees could avoid screenings altogether by not bringing bags or metallic items into the Amazon warehouse.

Saylor was joined by Justice Sallie Mundy.

The case is In re: Amazon.com Inc Fulfillment Center Fair Labor Standards Act and Wage and Hour Litigation, Pennsylvania Supreme Court, No. 43 EAP 2019.

For the plaintiffs: Peter Winebrake of Winebrake & Santillo

For Amazon: Richard Rosenblatt of Morgan Lewis & Bockius

Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.

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