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News | Jul 27, 2021

Our Firm’s Long Road to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holding that Amazon Warehouse Workers Should Be Paid for Time Associated with Mandatory Security Screenings

Our firm is delighted that, on July 21, 2021, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its opinion in Heimbach v. Amazon.com, Inc.  A copy of the 29-page majority opinion is available at our website page dedicated to the Amazon.com Security Screening lawsuit, which can be found by clicking HERE.

As you probably know, Amazon operates very large warehouses (sometimes called “fulfillment centers”) throughout the United States.  In an effort to prevent employee theft, Amazon required the warehouse workers undergo security screenings at the end of their shifts.  These security screenings took place after the employees “clocked-out” of the shift.  As a result, the workers generally were not paid for time associated with the security screening process.  This uncompensated time included both time spent waiting in security screening lines and time spent going through the screening process.

Throughout the United States, many lawsuits were filed against Amazon challenging the legality of the uncompensated security screenings.  All the lawsuits were transferred to the federal courthouse in Louisville, KY so they could be efficiently handled by a single District Judge.

Most of the lawsuits alleged that the security screening time violated a federal law called the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  In late-2014, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion — entitled Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, 574 U.S. 27 (2014) — holding that the security screening time was not compensable under the FLSA.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 Integrity Staffing decision put an end to all the Amazon security screening lawsuits based on the federal FLSA.  However, there remained a handful of lawsuits that sought to recover unpaid wages under state laws.  For example, our firm’s Heimbach lawsuit alleged that the security screening time was compensable under the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act (“PMWA”).

Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Integrity Staffing opinion, Amazon asked the District Judge to throw out the Heimbach lawsuit.  Amazon generally argued that the PMWA is identical to the FLSA with respect to compensable work.  In opposition, we asserted that the PMWA’s definition of compensable “hours worked” is more generous than the FLSA.  Unfortunately, the District Court sided with Amazon and threw out the Heimbach lawsuit.

We respectfully disagreed with the District Judge’s ruling and analysis.  For many years, our firm has represented Pennsylvania workers in litigation seeking to uphold the important principle that Pennsylvania wage law is more employee-friendly than the federal FLSA.  We believed Heimbach was such a case.  So we appealed to the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from the federal District Courts in Kentucky and other nearby states.

On appeal, we asked the Sixth Circuit to refer the appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for guidance regarding important issues of Pennsylvania law.  In November 2019, the Sixth Circuit granted our request and asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to answer the following “certified” 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]?  and  (2) Does the doctrine of de minimis non carat lex . . . apply to bar claims brought under the [PMWA]?”  Heimbach v. Amazon.com, Inc., 942 F.3d 297, 304 (6th Cir. 2019).  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to answer these questions.

Our firm submitted substantial briefing addressing the above questions.  You can click HERE for access to our briefs.  In addition, an excellent amicus curiae brief was submitted by worker’s rights advocates from the following organizations:  the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW); Philadelphia Community Legal Services; the National Employment Law Project (NELP); the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA); the Western Pennsylvania Employment Lawyers Association, Justice at Work, and Towards Justice.  You can click HERE for access to this amicus brief.  In addition, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed an amicus brief supporting our position.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral argument in September 2020.  Then, on July 21, 2021, the Court issued an extensive, 29-page majority opinion written by Justice Debra Todd and joined by 5 of the 7 Justices.  A copy of the opinion is available at our website page dedicated to the Amazon.com lawsuit, which can be found by clicking HERE.  The opinion, which eventually will be published in the Atlantic Reporter, can be cited as: Heimbach v. Amazon.com, Inc., __ A.3d __, 2021 WL 3059773, 2021 Pa. LEXIS 3047 (Pa. July 21, 2021).

As noted earlier, we are delighted with the opinion.  With respect to the first certified question, the Court observed that the PMWA must be construed in a manner that is consistent with its legislative purpose of protecting Pennsylvania workers and explained that the PMWA often provides Pennsylvania workers with wage benefits that extend beyond those available under the federal FLSA.  The Court then undertook a careful analysis of the PMWA’s regulatory definition of “hours worked,” which includes, among other things, “time during which an employee is required by the employer to be on the premises of the employer.”  The Court then “reject[ed] Amazon’s broad contention” that this definition is limited to time during which an employee is “engaged in duties or tasks directly related to the specific requirements of their job or occupation.”  Such an interpretation, the Court observed, “is unfounded and unreasonably constrained” because it fails to recognize that the definition of “hours worked” includes “all ‘time during which an employee is required by the employer to be on the premises of the employer’ as compensable hours worked, regardless of whether the employee is actually performing job-related duties while on the premises.”

Next, the Court turned to the second certified question:  “Does the doctrine of de minimis non carat lex . . . apply to bar claims brought under the [PMWA]?”  The Court again emphasized the PMWA’s remedial purpose and observed that neither the PMWA nor its accompanying regulations make any mention of a de minimis rule.  On the contrary, such a rule would flatly contradict the PMWA’s statutory requirement that employees be paid for “all hours worked.”  Thus, the Court concluded, the purported de minimis rule has no basis in Pennsylvania wage law.

Going forward, our firm is excited to return to the District Court in Louisville, KY to complete this litigation.  We are really grateful to our friends from the above-referenced worker’s rights organizations for believing in this case and filing a great amicus brief supporting the cause.  –PW

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