The United States Supreme Court issued an interesting decision last month on whether employees who are required to undergo security screening after their work was done should be paid for that time. The Supreme Court found in favor of the employer, and concluded that workers did not have to be paid for that that time because the screening was a non-compensable “postliminary” activity under the Portal-to-Portal Act.

In Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, the employer was a company that provided staff to work in warehouses for the online giant, Amazon. A group of workers filed a class action in 2010 against the staffing company seeking unpaid wages under the FLSA. According to their complaint, workers were required to pass a security screening at the end of the day in order to deter theft of product from the warehouse. The workers alleged that it could take workers up to 25 minutes to compete the screening process, for which they were not paid. Because the screening was allegedly necessary and for the employer’s benefit, the workers claimed they should have been compensated for the time.

Initially, the federal district court dismissed the workers' case for failing to state a viable legal claim. The district court ruled that the security screening was a non-compensable "postliminary" activity under the Portal-to-Portal Act because it was not an "integral and indispensable part of the warehouse duties the workers were hired to perform. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit disagreed and reversed, holding that the screening was a postliminary activity, but was compensable because it was necessary to the warehouse work and for the benefit of the employer. The employer successfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court reversed. The Court started with the proposition that the Portal-to Portal Act makes noncompensable "activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to said principal activity or activities" of a worker’s job. Citing its long-standing interpretation of the Act, the Court stated that “the term ‘prin­cipal activity or activities’ [embraces] all activities which are an ‘integral and indispensable part of the prin­cipal activities.’”

The Court held that under the Portal-to-Portal Act, employers were not required to pay workers for postliminary activities that were not integral to the workers' warehouse duties. In a succinct analysis, the Court concluded:

The security screenings at issue here are noncompensa­ble, postliminary activities. To begin with, the screenings were not the “principal activity or activities which [the] employee is employed to perform.” 29 U. S. C. §254(a)(1). Integrity Staffing did not employ its workers to undergo security screenings, but to retrieve products from ware­house shelves and package those products for shipment to Amazon customers.

The security screenings also were not “integral and indispensable” to the employees’ duties as warehouse workers. As explained above, an activity is not integral and indispensable to an employee’s principal activities unless it is an intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to per­form those activities. The screenings were not an intrinsic element of retrieving products from warehouse shelves or packaging them for shipment. And Integrity Staffing could have eliminated the screenings altogether without impairing the employees’ ability to complete their work.

As savvy HR professionals and in-house counsel know, this case does not create a blanket rule that renders noncompensable every activity after a worker leaves his or her work station. Each situation is different and will generally require a detailed analysis of the particular facts. Indeed, in this case, it took about half a decade in the federal courts to come to a final answer.

The case is a relatively straightforward read, and contains a good history and discussion of the Portal-to-Portal Act. For those who are interested, the Supreme Court's decision can be foundhere.