Amazon workers want to be paid for standing in line at security checks

Mar 5, 2014, 6:43 AM | Updated: 7:51 am
Workers in Amazon warehouses have to go through security checks at the end of their work day to make sure they haven't stolen anything. With lines that last a half hour or more, their case to be compensated for the time now heads to the Supreme Court. (AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

Amazon warehouse workers are upset because as part of their job they have to go through security checks as they leave the building to make sure they’re not stealing anything. Their case, to be compensated for their time, is now headed to the Supreme Court.

Going through the security checks requires lining up for, sometimes for as much as a half hour or more. The employees feel that this is part of the workday and they should be paid for it.

In previous cases, the court has ruled that things like punching in, or of course, commuting to work, are not considered part of your work day.

So I asked University of Washington’s Dr. Vandra Huber, a professor of Human Resources Management if these Amazon employees pushing their case too far.

“In my opinion, probably not,” she said.

According to Huber, the real issue is if the employees waiting in line for their security check are doing something that benefits the company.

“Are they engaged to wait, or are they waiting to be engaged?” Huber asked. “That sounds like a play on words.”

Strictly speaking, going through the security check to make sure they haven’t stolen anything is not part of their job – as an employee, you should be expected not to steal anything.

On the other hand, it’s not an incidental amount of time.

Apparently, because these Amazon warehouses have so few security checkers, you can stand there for a half hour or longer. If it was the kind of security check you get going into a stadium, you know, thirty seconds – no problem – the problem seems to be the amount of time it takes.

Huber said it might still be an issue, even if the check only took a few minutes. “Then you have a company like Amazon, three minutes per worker starts adding up. So that if it’s overtime, over 40 hours, then it’s time-and-a-half too for many of these workers.”

As the Supreme Court makes their ruling, it will likely affect more than Amazon. A ruling in favor of the workers could set a precedent that then spreads to other businesses.

“These types of cases always set precedents. One of the earliest ones that was similar, was a case where mining companies did not want to pay workers for the time it took them to (descend the mine shaft.) That could take up to a half-an-hour,” explained Huber. “It sounds like Amazon. And of course if they didn’t have to pay them, then (the mining companies) would save money. So the same thing might happen with Amazon.”

In the case of the mine workers, Huber said it was ruled that traveling down the mine shaft was a part of the work day.

“They don’t have to pay you to drive to the work site but the time it takes you to go down that mine is certainly overtime,” said Huber.

It sounds like the Amazon case is in a gray area.

“The Supreme Court right now is business focused, based on its balance.” But Huber predicted, “In my opinion the labor laws would probably say the workers need to be compensated.”

MyNorthwest.com’s Alyssa Kleven contributed to this report.

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Amazon workers want to be paid for standing in line at security checks