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Supreme Court: Amazon need not pay workers for security check time

The justices say theft prevention screening isn't integral to warehouse employees' jobs, so Amazon doesn't have to provide compensation.

Amazon employees at a fulfillment center in California. Former employees of a Nevada location have lost their case against Amazon for back pay related to their time spent in security screen lines. James Martin/CNET

Amazon and other companies that employ warehouse workers are likely breathing a sigh of relief after the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the online retailer does not have to pay its employees for the time spent in security check lines.

The court ruled unanimously, overturning the decision of a lower court that Amazon should pay for the time since the screenings benefit the company. The screenings are considered a part of its employees' jobs, the lower court had ruled. The Supreme Court disagreed.

Mark Thierman, the lawyer representing the former Amazon employees, said the decision was "disappointing" and "bad for working men and women."

The ruling should ease anxieties at other companies that screen workers at the end of a shift to prevent theft, which likewise could have been held accountable for back pay related to the time spent in screening lines. CVS and Apple are facing similar suits, according to the Associated Press.

The Supreme Court said the third party that engaged the employees did not specifically hire them to stand in lines, so it's not considered an integral part of their job. Federal law exempts employers from paying for work-related activities that happen before or after work, like waiting to punch a time clock. Thierman said most state laws don't include these type of exclusion.

"Federal law should set the highest standards for treating workers fairly," he said.

The case was originally brought by two former employees who worked at a Nevada facility. They said they had to wait in long lines for the checks, but Amazon said the accounts were exaggerated.

"The allegations in this case were simply not true -- data shows that employees typically walk through security with little or no wait, and Amazon has a global process that ensures the time employees spend waiting in security is less than 90 seconds," an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement following the ruling.

It's unclear what this means for similar lawsuits filed against Amazon. Four other cases have been filed, seeking compensation for nearly 100,000 workers, according to the AP.