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Apple’s in hot water over employees’ after-hours bag searches

Apple Store workers in California didn’t much like the fact that they had to clock off before their bags, packages, and devices were checked by security at the end of each workday.

This week a California court sided with the workers, ruling that the time spent doing such searches should be done on the clock.

With each search taking between five and 20 minutes to complete, and the company facing having to apply the ruling retroactively, the decision could cost Apple tens of millions of dollars in payments to its store staff.

The case has been bouncing around California courts since 2013 when several Apple Store workers launched a class-action lawsuit regarding this and a couple of other matters linked to pay.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California threw out the case in 2015 after determining that the plaintiffs could have avoided the searches by not bringing a bag to work. But on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided to turn to the California Supreme Court for clarity on whether the bag searches should be done on the clock.

On Apple’s time

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, delivered by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye on Thursday, February 13, said that Apple Store workers are “clearly” still at the store on Apple’s time while waiting for the exit searches to begin, and while they take place.

“The exit searches burden Apple’s employees by preventing them from leaving the premises with their personal belongings until they undergo an exit search … and by compelling them to take specific movements and actions during the search.”

It continued: “Under the circumstances of this case and the realities of ordinary, 21st-century life, we find far-fetched and untenable Apple’s claim that its bag-search policy can be justified as providing a benefit to its employees.”

A “benefit to its employees”? Yes, that was the tech company arguing that “it could have totally prohibited its employees from bringing any bags or personal Apple devices into its stores altogether, and thus employees who bring such items to work may reasonably be characterized as having chosen to exercise an optional benefit.” But the court wasn’t having it.

In addition, the court also said the decision should be retroactive for employees, leaving Apple with the prospect of having to compensate for all of the hours, over many years, that its California store workers spent waiting around for bag checks. Estimates have suggested the total payout could be as much as $60 million.

Following this week’s ruling, the case will now return to the Ninth Circuit where the Supreme Court’s decision will be applied in the case.

Attorney Kimberly Kralowec, representing the Apple Store employees, welcomed the decision, calling it “a good day for California employees in general.”

We’ve reached out to Apple for its take on this long-running affair, and we’ll update when we hear back.

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