hammer-28636_640The United States Supreme Court is set to hear arguments about a 1947 law that does not require companies to pay for the commute time for employees to and from their jobs. This legal reasoning is being challenged in a different way by Amazon warehouse workers who have to stand in line for as long as 30 minutes after they have clocked out to pass through security screenings. Obviously, the idea is to reduce or eliminate theft, but while no one is questioning the security screenings they are questioning whether standing in line for 30 minutes a day should be paid for as work by the company.

It is an interesting issue in a number of ways, and has more than a few businesses worried that should the ruling be in favor of the workers it could cost companies millions of dollars. Two rulings that the Supreme Court made later defined the conditions as to whether employees could get paid for time not directly related to work activities – “integral and indispensable.” If the activity required meets these two conditions then the time spent by the employee to perform such activities is to be paid for by the company. The Amazon issue expands that concept to the issue of company security.

One part of the discussion involves the issue of trust between employer and employee. It goes without saying that the temptation of taking home one of the oh-so-many nice things in an Amazon warehouse is huge for many people. Amazon is not suggesting everyone is prone to giving in to the temptation, but because of those in the minority the security checks are necessary. What is interesting is the direction that basic employee traits such as loyalty and honesty have gone, or even disappeared. The legal decision will not address this decline but it is a point of concern for both employer and employee.

The point of Amazon, and it’s one which is supported by many businesses, is that employees should not have to be paid for not breaking the law. The security check is simply ensuring that employees will do what they are supposed to do but is not part of their business activity. In other words, the job description does not contain a list of things employees are not supposed to do. Why should employees be paid for the non-business activity that generates no revenue for the company?

Most working people will side with the workers, maintaining that it is the time that is at issue, not the company’s bottom line. The old adage that “time is money” applies to both employer and employee. Add to that the expanding world of technology that keeps employees digitally connected to their jobs even after paid hours. To suggest that company control of an employee’s time extends beyond the time that they are being paid is corporate Big Brother at its worst.

The last point to consider is the elephant in the room – security. Amazon maintains that it needs the security checkpoints to prevent theft. Extending that to computer security systems, employees spend a certain amount of time dealing with logins, passwords, and other security barriers before being able to do their jobs. Yet companies do not have a problem paying for that time, as it is “integral and indispensable” to the employee’s activities. While albeit a small amount of time for many workers, should Amazon win the decision, then what amount of time actually is relevant in determining how much time an employee spends going through company security at any level? The Supreme Court ruling will be as interesting as the case itself.