Labor & Employment Law Daily Pre- and post-shift activities of prison detention officers were compensable
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Thursday, February 6, 2020

Pre- and post-shift activities of prison detention officers were compensable

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

Preventing weapons or other contraband from entering the prison by way of security screenings was “an intrinsic element of” the officers’ security work.

Pre and post-shift activities by detention officers at a prison, including undergoing security screenings, pre-shift briefings, securing keys and equipment, and walking to and from posts, was compensable work, the Tenth Circuit ruled. Because the time officers devoted to undergoing security screenings was integral and indispensable to their principal activities, that activity began their workday. Further, the appeals court rejected an employer’s contention that the time the officers devoted to these activities is de minimis. Additionally, it was concluded that the officers’ rounding claim survived summary judgment. Consequently, a district court’s order awarding summary judgment in favor of the employer was reversed (Aguilar v. Management & Training Corp. dba MTC, February 4, 2020, Moritz, N.).

Detention officers at a county jail alleged that their employer failed to pay them for certain activities that they engaged in before they arrive at, when they arrived at, and after they left their posts within the prison, in violation of the FLSA and the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act. There were three shifts at the prison, and the officers generally work eight-hour shifts, five days a week.

Arrival and departure procedures. When officers arrive, they initially undergo a security screening; some officers receive a pre-shift briefing to receive post assignments from a supervisor. Next, the officers obtain the keys they need for the day’s post and collect equipment they need for the day from the prison’s inventory control system. The officers then walk to their posts, where they receive a “passdown” briefing from the officer leaving the post. After working their shifts, departing officers complete these activities in reverse.

Recording time. The employer requires the officers to use a timeclock to record their arrival and departure times. Officers clock in after undergoing the security screening and clock out after returning keys and equipment. The employer generally pays the officers based on their scheduled eight-hour shifts rather than on the precise times at which they clock in and out. Additionally, the employer has a ten-minute adjustment rule, which provides that if an officer clocks in or out more than ten minutes before or after his or her shift start or end time, the employer will pay the officer based on the time clock, rather than his or her scheduled shift.

Deprivation of overtime. The officers contended that the employer’s compensation system deprived them of overtime pay in two ways. First, they allege that because the employer pays them based on shift-time rather than clock-time, it fails to pay them for the time they devote to undergoing the security screening, pre-shift briefing, securing keys and equipment, walking to and from posts, and conducting passdown briefings. Second, the officers allege that the employer’s ten-minute adjustment rule routinely rounds down their work time resulting in systematic underpayment.

Compensability of work. Following discovery, the employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that the officers did not perform compensable work when they engaged in the pre- and post-shift activities. Alternatively, it argued that if any of the time was otherwise compensable, it was de minimis and so not compensable under 29 C.F.R. § 785.47. Additionally, the employer insisted that it did not impermissibly round off the officers’ working time.

District court. The district court ruled that of the activities described by the officers, only the passdown briefings was integral and indispensable to the officers’ principal activities and therefore compensable. Even so, it ultimately concluded that the officers were not entitled to compensation for the time devoted to conducting passdown briefings because that time was de minimis. It further rejected the officers’ rounding claim and granted summary judgment to the employer.

Principal activities. On appeal, the officers argued that the district court erroneously concluded that the officers’ activities before they reach their posts and after they leave their posts were non-compensable preliminary and postliminary activities that are not integral or indispensable to their principal activities.

Pre-shift activities. Security screenings took between three and eleven minutes and required officers to empty their pockets, remove their jackets, sometimes remove their boots, present any briefcases, lunchboxes, or bags for inspection, and walk through a metal detector. The district court relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc v. Busk to find that a post-shift screening was not compensable. But here, however, the employer conducted security screening to prevent weapons and other contraband from entering the prison. Keeping weapons and contraband out of the prison was necessarily “tied to” the officers’ work of providing prison security and searching for contraband.

Because the time officers devoted to undergoing security screenings was integral and indispensable to their principal activities, that activity began their workday. Further, under the continuous-workday rule, “[o]nce the work[]day starts, all activity is ordinarily compensable until the work[]day ends.” The appeals court further held that the time the officers devoted to pre-shift briefings, securing keys and equipment, walking to and from posts, and conducting the pre-shift passdown briefing was also compensable under the FLSA.

Post-shift activities. Next, the court turned to consider the compensability of the officers’ last post-shift activity—returning keys and equipment. Access to keys and equipment is controlled to help ensure that inmates do not obtain these items, so this activity too was necessary to maintain the security of the prison. The district court noted that the officers “use keys to guard the inmates and to lock and unlock doors to ensure security;” use radios to communicate with officers at their posts and to give instructions throughout the day; and use restraints and pepper spray to control unruly inmates. Based on these findings, the appeals court had little difficulty concluding that picking up and returning keys and equipment is indispensable to the officers’ ability to perform their work.

Despite what the appeals court characterized as indispensability, the district court still concluded that picking up and returning keys and equipment was not “an ‘intrinsic element’ of the officers’ principal activities.” However, in view of the close connection between (1) the keys and equipment and (2) the nature of the officers’ work, the officers convinced the appeals court that checking out and returning these items was “an intrinsic element” for providing security in the prison, particularly in view of the specialized nature of the keys and equipment.

Accordingly, the pre- and post-shift activities between the security screening at the beginning of the shift, and the return of keys and equipment at the end of the workday were compensable. Summary judgment to the employer was overturned.

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