On October 8th, The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Integrity Staffing Solutions vs. Busk, an important new case that raises questions over the nature of work, compensation, and what it means to be “on the clock.” The genesis of the dispute is in a lawsuit filed by warehouse workers for an Amazon subcontractor in Reno, Nevada. As reported by Al Jazeera:
“At the end of each day, after they had clocked out,” their petition states, employees had to wait in line for an “anti-theft ‘security clearance,’ ” during which they “emptied their pockets, removed their wallets, keys and belts, and passed through metal detectors.” They sued to be paid for the extra 25 or so minutes this added to each work day.
The trial court ruled that this time did not qualify as work under the New Deal-era Fair Labor Standards Act, whose “portal to portal” rule exempts activities that are “preliminary” or “postliminary” to one’s job — like driving to work. But on appeal, the Ninth Circuit court reversed the decision, holding that the mandatory security screenings were “integral and indispensable to an employee’s principal activities.”
Now, the case has winded its way up to the nation’s highest bench: the notoriously pro-business Roberts Court, controlled by a conservative majority that has passed down blockbuster rulings like Citizens United (an erosion of campaign finance controls), and Hobby Lobby (allowing certain corporations to deny birth control coverage to the women they employ). Common sense, or a lay sense of fairness, would hope that the Supreme Court stands by the Ninth Circuit’s reversal and force Integrity Staffing to cough up wages for the hours their employees have spent in security checkpoints, but to judge by the combative pose of Justices Scalia and Alito in arguments, the jilted workers may need to hold off on cashing their checks just yet.
The pending outcome of Integrity Staffing will be of considerable interest to retailers across the country, who may find themselves reaching in their pockets in the not too distant future. According to CBS:
If the Supreme Court ultimately rules in favor of the warehouse workers, large retailers that use security checks might find themselves liable for a significant sum in back wages. Apple (AAPL) and CVS (CVS) are just two of the companies facing similar suits that are on hold pending the outcome of this case.
The Obama administration, for its part, has thrown its hat in the ring on the side of Amazon, and its “friend-of-the-court” brief makes explicit their interest in a resolution siding with the employers: “The United States also employs many employees who are covered by the [the relevant section of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act], and requires physical-security checks in many settings. The United States accordingly has a substantial interest in the resolution of the question presented.”
This cynical posture runs directly in the face of Obama’s attempts to rebrand himself as an advocate for underpaid workers. In his State of the Union address this January, the President urged business owners to “Say yes. Give America a raise.” But it appears that Obama is only interested in raising wages insofar as it avoids affecting the bottom lines of his powerful friends in the private sector. On Socialist website Liberation, Paul Secunda at Marquette University Law School is quoted saying: “There are billions of dollars at stake. It may seem cynical, but I can see this as something that large corporate donors to the Democratic Party care deeply about.”
Amazon would love nothing more than to turn attention away from this case, but the circumstances that produced this suit speak to the heart of issues bigger than the wage: the devaluation of human dignity. Pro-business media coverage on Integrity Staffing from Bloomberg, The Washington Post, and Business Insider* have focused largely on the “losses” sustained by Amazon through warehouse theft. But what about the lost wages of workers, forced to endure unpaid check points after long shifts at low pay?
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has an estimated net worth of $29 billion dollars, placing him just inside the top 20 of wealthiest people alive. He controls not only the largest and most complex online store in the world, but has expanded his companies reach into smartphones, grocery delivery, television, and media streaming. Bezos has personally invested into a cutting-edge military technology known as the quantum computer. He recently purchase The Washington Post. Only Google, with its vast empire of search, advertising, mobile software, and experimental technologies, can rival Amazon in the scope of their high-tech investments and ubiquitous consumer services.
And like Google, Amazon is pinning its hopes on a further integration of robotics into our daily life. In May, CNN reported that Amazon “would be using 10,000 robots in its warehouses by the end of the year.” It’s no coincidence that the labor dispute at the heart of Integrity Staffing has come to a head at a time of decreasing reliance on human beings in Amazon’s international distribution network. The automization of warehouse worker duties will undoubtedly be used as further leverage to keep wages depressed and dissident employees quiet. Not even negative-press coverage on “smoker’s cages” designed to prevent theft while employees took their outdoor breaks has been able to reverse the oppressive trends at Amazon’s distribution centers. As usual, profit takes precedence.
The check points at issue in Integrity Staffing are one small piece of a larger picture: an alarming trend of increased social control and unchecked corporate power. While I was first reading Al Jazeera’s coverage on the case, my mind immediately jumped to a novel by Octavia Butler I had read over the summer, The Parable of the Sower.
Butler’s prescient tale, written in the early 1990s, chronicles a teenage girl’s coming-of-age in a dystopian California ravaged by environmental destruction, economic collapse, and social decay. As she journeys from the Pasadena suburbs to the Northern Coast, she hears stories of “company towns”: cities owned by corporations that control every aspect of their worker’s lives, indebting and enslaving them. Far off in Washington D.C, presidential hopefuls jockey to enact ‘reforms’ by which worker protections are stripped in order to ‘save the economy.’ Fans of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath will find ample room for comparison to his historical tale of migrant workers relentlessly exploited by California farmers in the 1930s.
While labor conditions in the US have not yet reached the zenith Butler envisioned, a ruling against the plaintiffs in Integrity Staffing would only be the latest blow to human agency in the workplace. After all, if workers get shook down off the clock just leaving work, what other protections might the court see fit to take away?
*Business Insider’s coverage on Amazon includes a disclosure that “Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.”