Yesterday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the right of factory workers to be paid for the time they spend putting on and taking off safety gear. More evidence for the radical proposition: Workers should be paid for the time they work.
At first glance, I hope that it seems unremarkable that these employees of a Hormel canning plant would be compensated for the roughly six minutes per day that they spend putting on protective clothing when they get to work, and taking it off when they’re finished. Employees do not do that for fun. They do not do it for no reason at all. They do it because it is clearly a necessary part of their jobs. The only remarkable thing, indeed, is that the company would somehow imagine that it did not have to pay its employees for this part of their work day.
But that is exactly what the company tried to do, as you may have surmised from the fact that this case went all the way up to the state Supreme Court. Was there some sophisticated argument here as to why a company would not pay its workers for all of their time doing work-related tasks? You may be the judge of how sophisticated the argument was: “Hormel attorney Thomas Krukowski had argued that the Minnesota-based company didn’t have to pay workers for the time they spent getting dressed and undressed. He maintained that wearing the gear wasn’t crucial to workers’ activities since they could accomplish their tasks without wearing it.”
Not very sophisticated (and also a lie).
The most notable thing about this case is that it took a team of attorneys from the UFCW union in order to get these more than 300 workers the proper compensation that they were due. Had they not had a team of union attorneys working on their behalf, they would have gotten nothing, for the simple reason that the company just felt that it didn’t have to pay them for all their time. Knowing that only a small fraction of American workers are unionized, it is easy to imagine how many thousands and thousands of workers in other workplaces are getting screwed out of their proper compensation because their employer arbitrarily categorizes some portion of their time spent at work as not being work.
And we are not talking about small businesses run by a flinty owner who wants to save himself a few bucks here. We are talking about major corporations that are systematically cutting their labor costs by not paying their workers for all of the time that they work. We are talking about multibillion-dollar corporations adding to their profit margin by taking money directly out of workers’ paychecks. In some cases, legally! In 2014, the US Supreme Court (with Scalia, may he rest in peace) ruled that Amazon did not have to pay its workers for the time that they spent standing in line waiting to be checked by corporate security guards to make sure that they didn’t steal anything from Amazon. That half-hour of time, which was not optional, the company got for free.
It is one thing to argue over, say, how high the minimum wage should be, or how our country should construct its social safety net. Though we may certainly be tempted to tell one another to fuck off because of disagreements on these points, we can also agree that they are legitimate topics of political debate.
That makes them different from the question, “Should workers be paid for all the time that they have to work?” The answer to that should always be yes. You may be able to treat your workers like shit, and marginalize them, and pay them low wages. But you have to pay them for their time. Otherwise, you are less an employer than a thief.