Supreme Court

Amazon warehouse worker pay suit heads to Supreme Court

March 3, 2014: 3:15 PM ET

Former employees of Amazon contractor Integrity Security Systems claim that they deserve back pay for the time they spent in security checks at the beginning and end of the day.

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FORTUNE -- Security lines. They are the worst. And many workers have to pass through them every day. The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Monday to tackle the question of whether the time spent waiting in those lines is deserving of hourly pay.

The Supreme Court said that it would hear a class action lawsuit filed in 2010 by former employees of Amazon (AMZN) contractor Integrity Security Systems who claim that, under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), they deserve back pay for the time they spent in security checks at the beginning and end of the day, which the warehouse mandated to prevent employee theft.

The workers were "required to wait at least 10 to 15 minutes each day, and often more than a half hour, at the beginning and end of each shift without compensation whatsoever in order to undergo a search for contraband and/or pilferage of inventory," the complaint says.

Integrity Security contends that the security screenings are similar to other tasks -- such as waiting to punch the clock or walking to and from the workplace -- that are non-compensable under the FLSA. Amazon said on Monday that it doesn't comment on pending litigation.

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The Supreme Court never explains why it accepts or rejects a case, but the widespread use of security checks in workplaces likely carried a lot of weight.

In petitioning the Supreme Court to take the case, Integrity's lawyer, Paul Clement, argued that "in the post-9/11 world, security screenings have become ubiquitous in the American workplace and are routinely required for employees working in skyscrapers, corporate campuses, federal, state, and local government officers, courthouses, sports arenas, museums, airports, power plants, theme parks, and countless other places." Allowing the Nevada workers' suit to go forward, Clement argued, "opens employers up to billions of dollars in retroactive damages."

Indeed, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit let the Nevada workers' case continue, other employees filed similar nationwide class actions against Amazon distribution centers in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Washington state. Workers at a regional distribution center sued CVS Pharmacy (CVS) in September 2012 over its security checks, and tens of thousands of workers sued Apple (AAPL) in July 2013 because it requires its hourly retail employees to go through bag searches and clearance checks.

Wage and hour lawsuits in general -- in which workers accuse their employers of unfair pay practices -- is one of the few areas of workplace litigation that's on the rise. There were 7,882 lawsuits filed under the FLSA last year, up about 3% from 2012, according to the Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report from law firm Seyfarth Shaw. Many of the lawsuits hinge on what sort of activity constitutes the compensable workday, says Gerald Maatman, a labor and employment lawyer at Seyfarth, who is representing a third-party contractor in one of the Amazon lawsuits.

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The Supreme Court's decision in the Integrity case will at least give a definitive answer to the question of whether security checks should be included in the payable workday. Other courts have tackled this issue before: the Eleventh Circuit evaluated whether airport employees deserved pay for their time in the security line, and the Second Circuit decided the issue as it related to workers at a nuclear power plant. In both cases, the courts sided with the employers. But the Integrity case is different and a fairer test of the issue because it's the employer itself -- Integrity Security -- that mandated the security checks, not an outside authority like the Transportation Security Administration.

That means the outcome of the Integrity case will apply to a "greater variety of companies," says Mark Batten, a labor and employment lawyer at Proskauer Rose. "It will have a lot of impact on a lot of businesses."

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