Why it matters: In a closely watched case, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rule that the time spent by workers undergoing security screenings is not compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) because it was not “integral and indispensable” to the workers’ principal activities. A group of hourly employees filed suit alleging they should have been paid for the roughly 25 minutes spent each day undergoing a security screening before they left their employers’ premises. Emphasizing that the activities were performed for the employer’s benefit, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs. But the justices reversed, finding that the screenings fell under an exemption in the Portal-to-Portal Act for “activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to” performance of the principal activities that an employee is employed to perform. The security screenings themselves were not the principal activities the employers were hired to perform, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the Court, nor were they “integral and indispensable” to those activities, leaving the time not compensable under the statute.

Detailed Discussion

Integrity Staffing Solutions provides warehouse staffing to Amazon. Employees retrieve products from the shelves and then package them for delivery to the online retailer’s customers. At the end of each day, Integrity required that its employees undergo a security screening before leaving the warehouse. Removing items like wallets, keys, and belts, employees passed through metal detectors.

Two hourly workers at Integrity warehouses in Nevada filed suit against the employer, seeking to represent a collective action of fellow employees demanding payment pursuant to the FLSA for the approximately 25 minutes spent each day waiting to undergo and actually undergoing the security screenings.

A federal court judge dismissed the complaint, determining that the time was not compensable under the FLSA. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that because the security screenings were necessary to the principal work performed and conducted for Integrity’s benefit, the time was compensable.

But U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said the screenings failed to meet the required standards. The Portal-to-Portal Act exempts employers from liability based on two categories of work-related activities, including “activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to … principal activity or activities.”

The Court has consistently interpreted the term “principal activity or activities” to embrace “all activities which are an ‘integral and indispensable part of the principal activities,’ ” Justice Thomas wrote.

Consistent with Department of Labor regulations, previous opinions have applied the ordinary sense of the words, defining “indispensable” as a duty “[t]hat cannot be dispensed with, remitted, set aside, disregarded, or neglected.” Integral has been interpreted to mean “[b]elonging to or making up an integral whole; constituent, component; spec[ifically] necessary to the completeness or integrity of the whole; forming an intrinsic portion or element, as distinguished from an adjunct or appendage.”

Applying these standards, the security screenings at issue failed to pass the compensability test. The screenings themselves were clearly not the principal activity of the employees, as “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 Court said.

Further, the screenings were not “integral and indispensable.” The Ninth Circuit incorrectly focused on whether the screenings were required instead of whether the activity at issue “is tied to the productive work that the employee is employed to perform,” the Court explained.

“If the test could be satisfied merely by the fact that an employer required an activity, it would sweep into ‘principal activities’ the very activities that the Portal-to-Portal Act was designed to address,” the Court wrote, and a test that turns on whether the activity is for the benefit of the employer is overbroad.

“[A]n 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 justices said. “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.”

Justice Thomas noted that several activities have satisfied the test, such as the time spent by meatpacking employees to sharpen their knives as well as a shower and clothes change for battery plant employees to wash toxic chemicals off their bodies. Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored a concurring opinion joined by Justice Elena Kagan.

To read the opinion in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, click here.