Workers at Apple stores in California who participate in mandatory searches of their bags while entering and exiting the tech giants’ stores are not required to be compensated for the time spent undergoing the searches, a federal judge ruled on Saturday.
“The ability to bring a bag into Apple’s stores is simply an optional benefit with a string attached — the requirement to undergo searches," wrote US District Court Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California.
In a long-running legal battle involving some 12,000 Apple workers, the employees argued the company’s security policy, which was intended to deter theft and also required searches when employees left for meal breaks, was demeaning.
But Judge Alsup rejected their claims. Citing several other rulings – including a 2014 Supreme Court case involving workers at an Amazon warehouse in Nevada who said they had sometimes waited 25 minutes to go through a security check – he argued security screenings were not part of the workers’ regular duties and shouldn’t be compensated.
Observers said the decision pointed to an ongoing debate over what is considered part of a regular workday.
"It means that workers at Apple – as well as other retail stores that have this policy – can be required to donate time to the company," says Rebecca Smith, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which advocates on behalf of low-wage workers. "To say that you can choose to bring a bag to work is not leaving any control to workers at all... It means you can’t bring your lunch, it means you can’t bring a book to read during your break time, it’s a false choice to say workers can’t bring a bag to work."
Lee Shalov, a lawyer for the Apple workers, told Reuters they were disappointed in the judge’s ruling and would consider all their options, including the possibility of an appeal.
A spokeswoman from Apple declined to comment.
The employees’ claims appeared to have touched a nerve at Apple, where about 30,000 of its 43,000 employees work at Apple Stores, mainly for hourly wages, though some employees are salaried, the New York Times reported in 2012.
Apple is known for its tightly-knit culture and passionate fan base, but former employees told the Times they often found the pace of the retail jobs grueling.
While hourly wages for the company’s “specialists” are higher than many retail jobs, averaging $15.27 an hour, according to the wage tracking site PayScale, and workers at the stores’ “Genius Bar” are paid higher wages, employees bring in far more money for the company than in many retail jobs.
In 2011, each Apple worker brought in $473,000 in revenue a year, compared to an average of $206,000 for workers at electronics and appliance stores, the Times reported.
As it made its way through the courts, word of the workers’ suit reached the highest levels of the company, with one worker telling Apple head Tim Cook in an e-mail that store managers “are required to treat 'valued' employees as criminals,” Reuters reports.
The company’s policy requires workers who bring their own Apple devices into the stores to verify that that they own the devices by checking them against a list of serial numbers, according to court documents.
Mr. Cook forwarded the employee’s e-mail to top human resources executives with the question, “Is this true?” Any response he received was not included in the court documents.
But Apple defended the policies, saying that employees could choose whether or not to bring the bags to work. At some stores, the company noted, the searches were not required at all.
“As a Store Leader, I also have a very trusting approach when it comes to employees and my leadership style, which is consistent with Apple’s positive intent culture,” wrote Bobby O’Leary, the top manager at an Apple Store in Chandler, Ariz., in a court filing.
Bag and technology checks were rare at the store – which has an off-site break room, Mr. O’Leary wrote, noting that they occurred mostly for workers at closing time. The store had also cut back on technology checks after problems updating the large list of serial numbers of employees’ devices in a central “Red Zone phone.”
When a manager did ask an employee about a bag check, he wrote, it normally took “a few seconds,” in contrast to the California workers’ claims of long waits.
Judge Alsup’s decision likely marks the end of the long-running conflict, which began in 2013 with a larger coalition of workers from stores across the country.
After the Supreme Court ruling that the Amazon warehouse workers were not required to be paid for time they spent undergoing security searches, Judge Alsup dismissed two suits but allowed the California Apple workers to continue their class action suit under state laws in July.
But he limited their claims, requiring them to agree that they had brought the bags to work voluntarily, for personal reasons.
Judge Alsup also acknowledged that some workers could have brought bags containing medications or other disability accommodations and offered the workers a chance to pursue a separate claim under that situation. No one took up his offer, he wrote in Saturday’s ruling.
Ms. Smith of NELP said the courts have been actively debating the issue of workers' hours. She said Judge Alsup's decision was somewhat of a surprise coming on the heels of a $3.8 million settlement last week between three Amazon warehouse workers and the temp agency that required them to submit to mandatory security screening.
"Since the Supreme Court’s decision, the question of compensation for hours worked and what time can be considered hours worked has really gone into a tailspin in the courts," she says.