Opinion: Supreme Court should rule for workers in overtime case

Nobody likes waiting in line. Not at the movies, not at the DMV, not at the airport. Now imagine that you have to wait in line every day after work as part of your job. Should you be paid for your time? That’s the issue that the Supreme Court is considering in Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk. 

Time is money. The Supreme Court should recognize that this basic principle applies to employees and employers, and rule for the workers in the Integrity Staffing case.  

— Raul A. Reyes

Jesse Busk is a former employee of Integrity Staffing, a subcontractor that runs warehouses in Nevada for companies like Amazon. After clocking out of a twelve-hour shift, Busk had to line up for a security check before he could go home. At times, this process took 25 minutes. Busk believed he deserved to be paid for that time, so he sued Integrity Staffing. A lower court agreed with him, and last week the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case.

The decision in Integrity Staffing will be important to Latinos because Hispanics are well represented among hourly and minimum wage workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Latinos are 19.1 percent of the nation’s hourly workers. What’s more, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement reports that Latinos suffer more minimum wage and overtime pay violations that any other ethnic group.

Unlike many Supreme Court cases, this one is fairly straightforward. Both the law and basic fairness dictate that the high court should rule for Busk and his fellow employees. Yet the Obama administration – which holds itself out as a champion of American workers - is siding with Integrity Staffing.

To understand why the government is getting it wrong, let’s take a look at existing law. For starters, the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) and the Portal-To-Portal Act (1947) establish rules for what is considered work time. Building on these laws, in Steiner v. Mitchell (1956) the Court found that if an activity was an “integral and indispensable” part of an employee’s duties, then the employee should be paid for that activity.

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Integrity Staffing says that the time spent waiting to clear security is not “an integral and indispensable” part of its employee’s work. However, the security clearance was mandatory; employees who did not submit to it would be fired. By making the security check a requirement for the job, Integrity Staffing made it “integral and indispensable.” Although Amazon is not a party to the lawsuit, a company spokesman told The Washington Post that the time employees have to wait for the security check is minimal. If the time is so minimal, why is Integrity Staffing fighting over paying for it?

Twenty-five minutes a day may not sound like much. But multiply that by five days a week, then by 52 weeks a year, and then by an hourly wage. Millions of dollars are at stake here, not to mention potentially one hundred hours a year that a worker could be spending with his family, instead of being stuck in a line (unpaid) at work. Integrity Staffing could have likely avoided this whole issue by hiring more screeners and cutting down on the wait times. Instead, they prioritized saving money over respecting the employees’ time.

It is disappointing that the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor are not taking the side of the employees. This is the same Department of Labor that features articles like “Defending Workers’ Rights is What We Do” on their website, and that recently posted a tribute to Latino workers for Hispanic Heritage Month. Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute suggests that this is because the U.S. government employs workers under the same conditions as Integrity Staffing. “In other words,” Eisenbrey writes, “as an employer, the government wants to be able to get away without paying its own workers for their time.”  So the Obama administration’s position seems cynical and self-serving.

True, many large retailers and corporations employ practices similar to Integrity Staffing. That doesn’t make it right. In fact, other companies ­– including Apple, JCPenney, CVS Health, and Ross Stores – have faced similar lawsuits as well. When these corporations argue that paying workers for their time in security lines would cost significant monies, they actually bolster the employees’ case that their time in line is significant. And there’s nothing wrong with corporations making a profit, so long as they do so without circumventing wage laws.

It is a truism in business that “Time is money.” The Supreme Court should recognize that this basic principle applies to employees and employers, and rule for the workers in the Integrity Staffing case.