What Is Work? The Supreme Court’s Decision Will Sort It Out

Photo illustration by istockphoto.com
Photo illustration by istockphoto.com

By Carolyn A. Pellegrini

“I have to go to work.” “Work was tough today.” “I don’t get paid enough for the work I do.”

We make these or similar statements, and we’ve all heard them. But what do they mean? What is “work”?

Recall that the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to compensate employees for “work.” As set forth in the Portal-to-Portal Act, employers need not compensate employees for preliminary and post-liminary activities unless such activities were “integral and indispensable” to a worker’s main activities.

That’s completely clear, right? Wrong.

Amazon case should offer guidance

But employers should not despair. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider a case that could provide some much needed clarity regarding the definition of “work.”

A putative class action brought by Amazon.com warehouse workers seeks compensation for time spent going through security clearances. The security screenings occurred after the employers clocked out for the day and required up to 30 minutes of waiting time per day.

The workers argued, and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, agreed, that the time spent waiting for and going through security was compensable.

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In response, the Amazon contractor that employs the warehouse workers argued that going through security checks was indistinguishable from other activities that the courts have found to be non-compensable such as waiting to punch in and out at the time clock, walking from the parking lot to the workplace, waiting to pick up a paycheck, and waiting to pick up protective gear before donning it.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the case, the decision will likely give employers needed guidance on what is “work” and what is not.

Stay tuned…

This was originally published on Montgomery McCracken’s Employment Law Matters blog.

Carolyn A. Pellegrini is an associate in Montgomery McCracken's Labor and Employment Practice. Her law practice concentrates on employment litigation. She also serves as an editor of the firm's Employment Law Matters blog, which covers the many unique and challenging legal issues that employers face, as well as new decisions and laws, best practices and trends in the workplace. Contact her at a cpellegrini@mmwr.com.

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