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Justices: If You Aren't Working, No Pay, Even If You Can't Leave

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Workers at Amazon contend their employer misidentified their number of hours at work. Amazon employees are busy now filling holiday orders. And at the end of their shifts, they routinely wait in line to go through security screenings to be sure they're not stealing anything. One Amazon employee in Nevada sued, demanding to be paid for the time spent in line. Yesterday, the Supreme Court said no. NPR's Sam Sanders reports.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Jesse Busk was that Amazon employee. He says the scene at those security checkpoints was something we could all relate to.

JESSE BUSK: You're just standing in line, and it's like an airport security - you have to take off your belt and go through the metal detector.

SANDERS: Busk says he was OK with the idea of the metal detectors. What he didn't like was how long you'd have to wait in those lines.

BUSK: It got up toward 30 minutes, sometimes it'd be like 25 minutes.

SANDERS: Busk sued to be paid for that time. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with him, but Tuesday, all nine Supreme Court justices sided with Amazon and the Amazon contractor Integrity Staffing Solutions. Ed Brill helped file an amicus brief for the case on behalf of several pro-business groups. Brill says Busk is wrong.

ED BRILL: The allegation that the security screenings take 25 or 30 minutes is just wrong. The vast, vast majority of cases it is a couple minutes going through a very simple screening process.

SANDERS: And Brill says if the Court had sided with Busk, it would put employers across the country on the hook for a lot more in wages and back pay. In their ruling, the justices referred to an amendment to the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act. It's called the Portal-to-Portal Act. When it was written, the word portals referred to those in coal mines.

MICHAEL DROKE: In a mine, you might enter the portal of the mine, and it's a couple miles that you'd have to travel to get down to a worksite and the question was, when do you actually start work?

SANDERS: That's Michael Droke, an employment law specialist. Droke says that law means you don't get compensated for what it takes to get to work, in the same way that you don't get paid for a long commute from your house to the office. Josh Buck is a lawyer who argued on the Amazon employee's behalf. And he says the Court's decision is bad for hourly, low-wage workers.

JOSH BUCK: The Supreme Court's decision today says to employers who have a similar system that they don't have to be concerned about wasting an employee's time.

SANDERS: As for Jesse Busk, that Amazon employee? Are you angry at Integrity Staffing or at Amazon about this whole thing?

BUSK: No. I just, you know, I don't care.

SANDERS: Busk says he's moved on. And he no longer works for Amazon. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.