GRINCHES

12.11.14 10:45 AM ET

How Amazon Became Santa’s Sweatshop

Why the Supreme Court’s decision that Amazon doesn’t have to compensate workers for the time it takes to search them is a slap in the face to blue-collar Americans everywhere.

The Supreme Court just handed a big holiday present to low-wage workers across America in the form of a giant f*ck you. It’s a reminder that while on some cases the court—like politics in general—may seem divided by red and blue, when it comes to decisions that affect big business in America, it’s all about the green. Forget the bullpucky about the “War on Christmas.” There’s a real “War on the Working Class” under way, and the Supreme Court just made it worse. So much for happy holidays. 

At Integrity Staffing Solutions in Nevada, a subcontracted company where workers process and ship Amazon goods, employees have to undergo screenings at the end of the day, every day, apparently to ensure they aren’t stealing things. Because, you know, we can trust Wall Street not to steal from their clients let alone defraud our entire economy—AIG, Bernie Madoff, must I go on?—but we can’t trust low-wage workers not to steal small electronics. That seems fair. Anyway, workers at the Integrity Staffing Solutions facilities are paid by the hour and say these security checks often take up to a half hour every day. 

A half hour’s work, without pay, every single day isn’t negligible. Especially when you’re already being paid so little. For instance, according to data compiled by CNN Money from Glassdoor.com, Amazon warehouse workers—the people who are making sure you get your Christmas gifts this year—earn about $12 an hour. Though it’s unclear whether workers at the subcontracted Integrity facility make less, that is often the motive for subcontracting. Either way, Wal-Mart pays its warehouse workers better (and that, in case it isn’t obvious, isn’t saying much). But even if the Integrity workers earn $12 an hour, then if they had to undergo 30 minutes of security screenings every workday, working five days a week for 50 weeks, that’s $1,500 per year in losses. In other words, a lot of money for anyone—let alone an employee otherwise earning just $24,300 a year.

Meanwhile, what makes it even more disgusting is that while Amazon warehouse workers aren’t getting paid for their mandatory security screenings, Amazon is getting paid for its security-related labor. Specifically, Amazon has received—and is presumably being well-compensated for—numerous security contracts with the United States government, including a contract revealed the same day as the Integrity decision in which the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency will become the first U.S. intelligence division to host its operational capacities on Amazon cloud servers. The Atlantic has reported extensively on the at least $600 million Amazon stands to be paid for handling CIA data. It looks like Amazon is on track to get additional Pentagon contracts as well. 

In other words, Amazon is simultaneously helping the government spy on people while Amazon subsidiaries are spying on their own workers. And then Amazon pockets all the taxpayer money from the intelligence contracts plus the money it doesn’t have to pay its workers. It’s like an express box of shit was just delivered, in two days thanks to Amazon Prime, to every working family in America.     

Indeed, the Supreme Court’s 9-0 decision that Integrity Staffing Solutions does not have to pay its workers for the time that the workers have to submit to screenings has ramifications for workers in other companies and industries. For instance, did you know that flight attendants in the United States are only paid for the period from which the plane doors close until the plane arrives at its destination? Delays, the boarding process, all that… they’re not paid for any of it. 

Such determinations, including the latest Supreme Court ruling, are pursuant to the Portal-to-Portal Act passed by Congress in 1947, which said that employers don’t need to pay employees for traveling to or from work and also don’t need to pay for “time spent on incidental activities before or after the employee’s principal activities.” In 2005, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that workers at meatpacking plants must be compensated for time spent putting on and taking off protective gear, although not for the time spent waiting to put on that protective gear. 

The Supreme Court justices who decided the Integrity case make $244,440 a year (Chief Justice Roberts makes $255,500).  Even before their appointments, these judges have not probably for a long, long time (if ever) worked a job where they were paid by the hour. Yes, lawyers bill by the hour but are paid an annual salary—plus bonuses. Even public-service lawyering jobs, while underpaid for the field, still pay better than low-wage warehouse labor.

In the white-collar salaried classes, when you’re told by your boss to stay late to work on a case or go out to drinks with a client, that’s considered “part of the job”—a job for which you’re already compensated decently or even handsomely. I can’t imagine any attorney accepting a situation where their employer mandated daily half-hour security checks, the equivalent compensation for which would be docked from their annual pay—which, arguably, is the equivalent of what’s happening with the warehouse workers. 

A judge’s interpretation of the law is unarguably shaped by her or his own experience of the world—and that world is sadly, inherently removed from the experience of low-wage workers. The Integrity ruling reflects the sort of lack of sympathy, if not downright antipathy, embodied in the court’s ruling this year in Harris v. Quinn, which chipped away at the right of workers to form unions. Ironically, in that ruling, the conservative majority in the 5-4 decision was concerned about workers being “compelled” by their peer workers to form a union. Now the court has shown it’s bizarrely less concerned about workers being compelled by their employers to work without pay.