Amazon’s business model is based on quick easy buying and low prices. One way it does that is to force its warehouse workers to wait a long time to leave work, without getting paid. And that’s just fine with the Obama administration, which continues to have a blind spot when it comes to decent pay and working conditions at Amazon.
Yesterday the Supreme Court heard a case (Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk) in which workers are suing the temp firm that staff’s Amazon warehouses. The workers are in court because they don’t get paid for the time they are forced to stand on line for a security check when they leave work to be sure they haven’t stolen anything. The security screening itself reveals the poor working conditions and lack of respect that Amazon has for its workers. Workers who are well paid and have job security will not take the risk of stealing. The lack of pay adds costly insult to their injury.
The legal issues revolve around whether the security screenings, which can take 20 minutes or more, are “integral and indispensable” to the job, which would trigger pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Amazon certainly thinks so; the screenings aren’t optional. Still the firm, which pays warehouse workers around $11 or $12 an hour, cheaps out by denying the workers pay when they are waiting on line to leave.
As Jesse Busk, the lead plaintiff in the case, told The Huffington Post, "You're just standing there, and everyone wants to get home. It was not comfortable. There could be hundreds of people waiting at the end of the shift."
While President Obama has made numerous passionate speeches about giving Americans a raise, his administration is taking Amazon’s side at the Supreme Court, filing an amicus brief, alongside the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbies.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing new about this from the administration. Last August, as I wrote at the time, “President Obama gave a great speech on why good jobs are the foundation for his middle-out economic strategy... from a huge Amazon warehouse where the workers do not have good jobs.”
The President told the Amazon warehouse workers who were in the audience, “we should be doing everything we can as a country to create more good jobs that pay good wages.”
Everything, it turns out, except being sure they get paid for all the time they are required to be at work.
The Obama administration may wonder why the President does not get more credit for the economic progress the nation has made coming out of the Great Recession or more recognition for his calls for raising the minimum wage. The core reason is that for too many Americans too low wages, too few hours at work, and job insecurity or no job at all remain their reality.
The President’s defense of Amazon reveals another reason. Americans see that he is unwilling to take on the powerful forces that are driving down the living standards and hopes of American workers. They see his embrace of Amazon and Wal-Mart, where he gave a speech on energy earlier this year. And too many come to the conclusion that it is only campaign contributors that matter, despairing of finding leaders who understand what really is going on in their lives – and who are willing to take their side against the powerful.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. This piece ran first in Roosevelt's blog, Next New Deal.