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Amazon workers must be paid for time spent undergoing security screenings

Maureen Leddy August 12, 2021

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held 5-2 that under the state’s minimum wage law, Amazon workers must be paid for the time they spend undergoing security screenings. The court concluded that Pennsylvania law goes beyond the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and mandates that employees be compensated for all time they are required to be onsite. (Heimbach v. Amazon.com, Inc., 2021 WL 3059773 (Pa. July 21, 2021).)

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Breinigsville, Pa., Amazon warehouse workers Neal Heimbach and Karen Salasky allege they were required to undergo anti-theft screenings at the end of each work shift—taking between 10 and 20 minutes—but they were not compensated for this time. The screenings involved searches of the workers’ bags and other personal items, metal detector screenings, and secondary screenings if a metal detector alarm sounded.

Heimbach and Salasky filed a putative class action against Amazon in Pennsylvania state court in 2013, seeking unpaid wages for all hourly workers employed by Amazon or hiring agency Integrity Staffing Solutions at the Breinigsville warehouse since September 2010. After Amazon removed the case to federal court, it was consolidated with similar actions in other states and transferred to federal district court in Kentucky. That court dismissed the workers’ claims and denied class certification, finding that time spent waiting for and undergoing security screenings is not compensable under the FLSA per the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk. (135 S. Ct. 513 (2014).)

Busk involved Nevada Amazon warehouse workers’ claims for compensation for the same security screenings at issue in this case. In Busk, the Court concluded that under the FLSA, as amended in 1947 by the federal Portal to Portal Act (PTPA), activities that are “preliminary to or postliminary to” a worker's “principal activity or activities” are noncompensable.

Heimbach and Salasky appealed to the Sixth Circuit, arguing that state law—the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act (PMWA)—is more protective than federal law and requires payment for time spent undergoing security screenings. The Sixth Circuit noted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had never addressed whether the PMWA incorporates the PTPA’s provisions on preliminary and postliminary compensation. In fact, the Sixth Circuit noted that the Third Circuit has stated that Pennsylvania law requires compensation for a broader range of activities than the FLSA. (Smith v. Allegheny Techs., Inc., 754 F. App'x 136 (3d Cir. 2018).) It also noted the lack of Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent on the defendants’ alternate argument: that mere “trifles”—a few minutes of work beyond scheduled hours—are noncompensable under the de minimis doctrine.

The Sixth Circuit certified questions regarding the range of the PMWA and the applicability of the de minimis doctrine to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which sided squarely with the workers on both questions. As to the PMWA’s range, the court found that the plain text of 34 Pa. Code §231.1 clearly addresses the question, defining “hours worked” to include “time during which an employee is required by the employer to be on the premises of the employer.” Because the workers do not have the option to leave the warehouse premises before undergoing post-work security screenings, time spent waiting for and undergoing screenings constitutes “hours worked” under state law, the court held.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court then considered whether the de minimis exception—as set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in its interpretation of the FLSA in Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co. (328 U.S. 680 (1946))—applies to the PMWA. The court noted that after Anderson, the U.S. Department of Labor issued an interpretive regulation, 29 C.F.R. §785.47, limiting the de minimis doctrine’s use to “uncertain and indefinite periods of time involved of a few seconds or minutes duration, and where the failure to count such time is due to considerations justified by industrial realities.” It also noted the U.S. Supreme Court’s uncertain view of the de minimis doctrine as applied to FLSA hours of work (Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., 571 U.S. 220 (2014)). Finding the doctrine to be “in flux,” the state high court rejected its application to the PMWA.

Drescher, Pa., attorney Pete Winebrake, who represents the workers, said “the opinion reinforces the principle that Pennsylvania wage law often provides workers with rights and protections that exceed those available under federal law.” He added that “the court’s holding regarding the compensability of security screenings is based on the principle that employers must pay workers for time associated with mandatory activities arising on the premises. This principle strikes most people as common sense, so it is terrific to see the rule legitimized by the court.” Winebrake called the court’s rejection of the de minimis rule “a breath of fresh air,” adding that “for too long, employers have argued that purportedly ‘small’ amounts of time were not worthy of being tracked and paid—but all work has dignity and is worthy of compensation.”