On June 29, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled that Amazon must face a proposed class action alleging violations of New Jersey Wage and Hour Law (NJWHL), which seeks compensation for time spent undergoing mandatory post-shift security screenings and for time spent during meal breaks. In Vaccaro v. Amazon.com.dedc LLC, the District Court held that while time spent during meal breaks is not compensable, time spent undergoing post-shift screenings was compensable work time under the NJWHL.
Dianne Vaccaro started as a warehouse worker for Amazon in June 2017. According to the complaint, at the end of the workday, Vacarro was required to undergo a mandatory security screening before she could physically exit Amazon's premises. The lawsuit alleges that the security screening requires employees to wait among hundreds of other warehouse employees to pass through security. The security measures allegedly include walking through a metal detector and placing personal items on a conveyer belt to be scanned via x-ray. According to the complaint, if Amazon determines that additional scrutiny is necessary, an employee must then submit to a mandatory “secondary screening,” which involves reporting to the secondary screening area so that a security guard can search the employee.
The lawsuit also alleged that the mandatory screenings, vastness of Amazon’s parking lot, and remoteness of its premises effectively prevented the employees from leaving the place of work during meal breaks. Amazon requires a 30-minute unpaid meal break during each workday and requires employees to punch in and out for each meal break. The complaint also alleges that, before employees are permitted to leave Amazon’s “premises” for a meal break, employees must undergo the same security screening process as is required at the end of the workday. Thus, the lawsuit alleged that Amazon similarly violated the NJWHL by failing to count time spent on meal breaks during the course of the workday as “hours worked” for purposes of calculating wages.
The District Court’s Rulings
Acknowledging that such screenings were not compensable under the FLSA, the court determined whether it nevertheless must be compensated under the NJWHL. Since neither the New Jersey Supreme Court nor any State courts had addressed the issue, the court was required to predict how the state’s highest court would decide the matter. The District Court predicted that time spent in post shift screenings would be held compensable while the meal breaks would not be.
In coming to its determination, the District Court relied partly on New Jersey regulations, which defined hours worked as all the time the employee is required to be at his or her place of work or on duty. Citing to precedent under the FLSA, which is analogous with the NJWHL, the court concluded that a “place of work” is any place where an activity is performed that is controlled or required by the employer and such activity serves to primarily benefit the employer. The court ruled that the security screenings alleged meet that criteria because the activity is controlled by and is for the primary benefit of Amazon.
The District Court, however, did rule in Amazon’s favor on the matter of meal breaks and held that unlike the post-shift screenings, the act of undergoing the screening during the workday is a result of the employee’s choice to take their meal outside the premises and serves primarily to benefit the employee. Since Vaccaro did not sufficiently allege that she is required to exit Amazon’s premises in order to take meal breaks, or that the consequences of such a choice primarily benefited Amazon, the court held that any time spent during meal breaks is not time spent at the place of work.
New Jersey employers seeking to implement pre- or post- shift screenings must be mindful to count that time as hours worked, but employees need not be paid if they need to be screened when leaving for or returning from meal breaks. Employees utilizing time clocks should allow employees to clock in before the pre-shift screening and after the post-shift screening.