On Tuesday, the Supreme Court handed a big win to Amazon and companies like it. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that businesses should not be required to pay workers at warehouses for the time they wait to go through mandatory security screenings at the end of the day. Workers might wait in line for five minutes to go through a routine anti-theft screening or they might wait 25 minutes; regardless, the employer does not need to compensate them for that time.
The ruling hinged on the justices’ interpretation of the Portal-to-Portal Act, a 1947 law that says companies do not need to compensate workers for “preliminary” or “postliminary” activities. A main goal of the Portal-to-Portal Act was to exclude workers’ commutes from the time companies were required to compensate, as well as other activities that were not related to the “principal” job. In the case decided Tuesday, which involved a temp agency that has contracted workers to Amazon’s warehouses, the court said security screenings were not “integral and indispensable” to the workers’ jobs, and therefore not required to get extra pay.
As I wrote in Slate in October, this case is one where the law and the basic economic logic seem to be somewhat at odds. Because many companies with warehouse facilities like Amazon require these security checks, the workers have no option but to comply with them. With commuting—one of the main pay exceptions under the Portal-to-Portal Act—workers can exercise some control over the time investment by deciding where they live relative to their job. The time a security screening takes, on the other hand, is entirely up to the employer. Employees just have to wait.
So here’s the problem: When employers aren’t required to pay employees for the time they spend waiting for those security checks, they have no incentive to make them more efficient. It doesn’t weigh on their books if workers stand around for 25 minutes instead of five. Why should they bother to improve the process? If you’re Amazon, the calculated risk up until now has probably been that you shouldn’t. And with this decision, the Supreme Court has all but assured that companies won’t be bothering to make changes any time soon, either.