Apple faces class-action lawsuit over searching employee bags

© Mike Segar
A lawsuit brought against tech giant Apple by its own employees over the company's bag search policy can go forward as a class action, a federal judge has decided. The decision affects more than 12,000 past and present employees.

The suit alleges that Apple must compensate store employees for the time spent waiting for company managers to search bags for stolen merchandise whenever employees left the store, including meal breaks, according to plaintiffs Amanda Frlekin and Dean Pelle.

US District Judge William Alsup ruled Thursday in San Francisco that the 2013 lawsuit can include current and former employees of Apple's 52 stores in California.

At least two Apple retail employees had taken complaints over the searches to top executive Tim Cook, saying the policy was demeaning, according to court filings.

One employee told Cook in 2012 that Apple managers "are required to treat 'valued' employees as criminals." Cook then forwarded the email message to other top Apple employees, asking, “Is this true?"

As many as 12,000 current and former employees are included as class members in the suit, the ruling said. Workers allege that they often had to wait around 15 minutes for a check to occur.

With that many employees seeking compensation for 15 minutes of pay at California's minimum wage of $9 an hour, that total could hit $60 million, Michael Risch, a law professor at Villanova University School of Law, told Bloomberg. The company could face another $15 million in penalties, he added.

“I assume they would take a $75 million hit plus bad publicity seriously,” Risch said. “Chump change for Apple, but nothing to sneeze at.”

Apple did not reply to Reuters' request for comment.

According to court filings, Apple has argued that the case should not be subject to class-action status given not all retail store managers searched bags, and that any searches took such little time that they did not demand compensation. Judge Alsup said that those issues could be resolved at trial.

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Apple has also argued that the case did not deserve class-action status since there were too many variations on how stores around California conducted screenings for so many different employees.

Judge Alsup previously rejected an attempt by Apple to throw out the case, ruling that the evidence deserved a "more comprehensive" hearing.

Last year, in the case Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that warehouse workers at who were not compensated for time spent in security screenings following their shifts were not owed pay from their employer.

The court ruled that employees must only receive pay for activities that include an "integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed." Since security checks were not part of their core job responsibilities, the Amazon employees were not owed compensation, the court said.