The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently asked the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to decide on the complex issue of whether Amazon is obligated to pay workers who are waiting for security screenings.  The case was brought as a class action alleging that Amazon’s employment practices contradict the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act (PMWA).

The Sixth Circuit specifically asked the Supreme Court to answer the two following questions: “(1) Is time spent on an employer’s premises waiting to undergo and undergoing mandatory security screening compensable as ‘hours worked’ within the meaning of the PMWA? (2) Does the doctrine of de minimis non carat lex apply to bar claims brought under the PMWA?”

One plaintiff in this case worked in an Amazon warehouse while another worked for Integrity Staffing Solutions, both of which were located in Amazon’s logistics facility/fulfillment center in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania.  The hourly employees working at this facility were subject to antitheft security screenings after clocking out at the end of every shift.  Employees had to wait in line while they underwent the screenings and they were not compensated for the time they waited.

There are disputes between the parties as to how much time the workers ended up spending everyday in this airport-like security screening before leaving after their shifts.  The Sixth Circuit Court reiterated that the Supreme Court decided that “trifles as a few seconds or minutes of work beyond the scheduled working hours may be disregarded,” which is the doctrine of de minimis non carat lex.  This decision was issued when the case was decided under the FLSA, however, and the Sixth Circuit Court held that the outcomes in similar state cases on this issue were sufficiently sparse to present the question to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as well.

Our Supreme Court decided in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk that the security screenings held after employees’ shifts were noncompensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and this case questions if the outcome should remain the same under the PMWA.

The FLSA provision being questioned in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk arose from the Portal-to-Portal Act, which was a modification of the FLSA exempting employers from liability for future claims based on certain categories of work-related activities.  In this case, the Supreme Court of the United States had to interpret the exemption for activities that are preliminary to or postliminary to principal activities of the company.  The Justices determined that an activity is considered principal if, in order to complete the employee’s designated job, they must complete the activity.  The Supreme Court thus concluded that the security screenings were not compensable postliminary activities.

Federal courts have also had to address this issue in multidistrict litigation arising from statutes in Nevada, Arizona, and Kentucky.  Based on the respective statutes in these similar challenges as well as the understanding of the FLSA generally, federal courts have ruled in favor of Amazon in Kentucky because it implicitly adopted the Portal-to-Portal Act but in favor of the workers in Arizona and Nevada because they have not adopted the Act.  In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled on this issue of compensable time under the FLSA back in 2014 and ruled in favor of Amazon.  Federal courts ruling on the issue under state law have been inconsistent, however, with California just recently ruling against Apple under California law and holding that time spent going through security screenings post-shift is considered compensable.

The Sixth Circuit Court found raising a question of law to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to be necessary in this case rather than deciding for itself because the resolution to the issue was not considered clear and principled.  They stated that it rather required interpreting Pennsylvania law on an issue to which the Court has not already spoken and dictating how that law should apply to this case.  Furthermore, they believe that certifying this question to go before the Court will ultimately save time and energy while supporting a cooperative judiciary.

The Sixth Circuit Court delivered their opinion in November of 2019 requesting that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hear this case.  The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case at the end of December, but it has yet to be scheduled.

With contribution from Angela Mauroni, first year J.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.