Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds Employer Must Pay Workers for De Minimis Time

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held that an employer must pay its warehouse workers for time spent waiting for and undergoing mandatory security screenings. This decision is a warning to employers across the country who do not pay employees for “de minimis” time.

Background

Plaintiffs worked in the employer’s warehouse facility. Their duties included receiving, transporting, and processing merchandise for shipping. They clocked in and out at the start and end of shifts. After clocking out, the employer required Plaintiffs to undergo anti-theft screening, which included a bag search and passage through a metal detector. The employer did not pay Plaintiffs for this time.

In 2013, Plaintiffs filed a class action, alleging they were entitled to compensation for time spent undergoing the anti-theft screening. They first alleged the employer violated the FLSA by failing to pay workers for this time. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court held Plaintiffs were not entitled under the FLSA to be paid for this time.

While this decision resulted in Plaintiffs’ federal law claims being dismissed, Plaintiffs’ pressed on with claims under Pennsylvania law. Following years of appeals and decisions from courts across the country, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Plaintiffs’ request to decide two questions under Pennsylvania’s Minimum Wage Act (PMWA):

  1. Is time spent on an employer’s premises waiting to undergo and undergoing a mandatory security screening compensable as “hours worked” within the meaning of the PMWA?
  2. Does the de minimis doctrine apply to bar Plaintiffs’ claims?

Under the PMWA, hours worked were defined as follows:

The term includes time during which an employee is required by the employer to be on the premises of the employer, to be on duty or to be at the prescribed work place, time spent in traveling as part of the duties of the employee during normal working hours and time during which an employee is employed or permitted to work; provided, however, that . . . time spent on the premises of the employer for the convenience of the employee shall be excluded.

Court Holds Security Screening Time Constituted “Hours Worked” Not Barred By De Minimis Doctrine

As to question one, the court applied a plain language interpretation of the above regulation and held that the time spent undergoing the employer’s security screening was compensable. The court specifically noted the employer required employees to remain in the warehouse until security screenings are complete and the screening was for the benefit or convenience of the employer—not the employees. The court also rejected the employer’s argument that the PMWA should be interpreted consistent with the FLSA’s definition of “hours worked.”

As to question two, the court again sided with the Plaintiffs, holding the de minimis doctrine did not bar their claims. This doctrine generally protects employers who do not pay employees for minimal time spent transitioning to or from work (usually less than ten minutes). However, given the broad language in the PMWA, the court held that the de minimis doctrine did not protect the employer. Rather, the court held that the doctrine applies only when doing so would be consistent with the PMWA’s stated purpose: “to maintain the economic well-being of our Commonwealth’s workforce by ensuring that each and every Pennsylvania worker is paid for all time he or she is required to expend by an employer for its own purposes.” Notably, the court also relied on a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., which the Pennsylvania court believed “indicate[d] that the high Court’s view of the relevance of the de minimis doctrine . . . of the federal FLSA going forward is no longer certain.”

Minnesota’s Definition of Hours Worked

Minnesota’s Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay employees for all hours worked and overtime for hours worked over 48 per workweek. Minnesota’s Administrative Rules, in turn, define “hours worked” as follows:

Hours worked include training time, call time, cleaning time, waiting time, or any other time when the employee must be either on the premises of the employer or involved in the performance of duties in connection with his or her employment or must remain on the premises until work is prepared or available. Rest periods of less than 20 minutes may not be deducted from total hours worked.

***

Periods when the employee is completely relieved of duty and free to leave the premises for a definite period of time, and the period is long enough for the employee to use for the employee’s own purposes, are not hours worked.

Minn. Admin. R. 5200.0120, subp. 1, 3.

Because Minnesota’s definition contains language which mirror’s Pennsylvania’s, it is possible Minnesota courts could soon follow Pennsylvania and limit application of the de minimis doctrine.

Bottom Line

Employers have for years relied on the de minimis doctrine when creating and implementing worker pay policies. This doctrine has been a valuable safeguard against wage-and-hour actions. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s holding provides a stark warning to employers who do not compensate employees for mandatory but insignificant “non-work” time. While the FLSA is not likely to change in the imminent future, the Pennsylvania case may lead to an increase in state law wage-and-hour actions in states which define “hours worked” similarly to Pennsylvania and Minnesota.