When you work an hourly job, you expect to get paid for the time you put in. But how do you define the time that you spend working? Is it based on the task you’re performing, or is there more to it?

You might think these are hypothetical questions, but they’re not. They recently formed the core of a very real wage and hour case against Apple. Employees in the tech giant’s California stores believed they should receive payment for the time they spent in mandatory bag searches. And in its opinion, the California Supreme Court agreed with them.

Bag checks and the definition of hours worked

Apple submits all the employees at its stores to mandatory bag checks. This point was undisputed in the case. In fact, Apple’s policy appears in full in the Supreme Court’s opinion, and it states:

“All personal packages and bags must be checked by a manager or security before leaving the store.”

The policy also notes that employees can face dismissal if they refuse to comply. Still, Apple claimed the bag checks were voluntary. It reasoned that the checks only applied to employees who voluntarily chose to bring their bags, purses or Apple devices into the stores.

This was the center of the dispute between Apple and its employees. California law says that employees are working anytime they are “subject to the control of an employer,” including all the time they are “suffered or permitted to work.” With the bag checks, were the employees:

  • Subject to Apple’s control?
  • Making voluntary decisions about how to spend their time?

As the Supreme Court noted, employees “subject to the control of an employer” have a right to payment for the time they spend under that control, even if they’re not working at the time. To test whether Apple’s bag policy was controlling its employees, the court asked four key questions:

  • Did it carry a threat of discipline? Yes, employees faced discipline up to possible termination.
  • Where did the checks take place? They took place in the workplace.
  • How much control did Apple have over the process? Apple clearly defined the process and appointed managers or security to oversee it.
  • Who benefitted? The court found that the policy upheld Apple’s interests, not those of the employees.

In other words, the policy clearly subjected employees to Apple’s control. The only real question was whether employees were voluntarily submitting themselves to the checks.

When the iPhone is too essential for Apple’s own good

The next big question the Supreme Court had to ask was whether Apple’s employees could simply opt not to bring bags. Wouldn’t that free them from the bag checks and the extra time they took?

Here, the Supreme Court reviewed the policy’s practical application. Could employees choose not to bring bags? Yes. But was it reasonable to expect they were free to leave their bags at home? Not necessarily.

The court noted that people carried bags and purses for all kinds of practical reasons. It even made note of two specific reasons that Apple might expect its employees to bring bags or devices:

  • Apple requires employees to wear branded attire in the store and to cover or change the attire before leaving the store. This policy suggests a bag to hold a change of clothes.
  • Apple’s own CEO claimed the iPhone had become “so integrated and integral to our lives, you wouldn’t think about leaving home without it.”

As a result, the court held that the so-called “choice” Apple gave its employees about bringing bags or iPhones to work wasn’t a real choice. It didn’t lead to a “workable standard.”

Employees can win against even the largest companies

Wage and hour disputes such as this are far more common than you might expect. So, what stops more workers from pursuing their right to fair pay? One answer may be that most workers don’t feel they can win.

If that’s why you’re suffering through unfair practices, the recent decision against Apple is your wake-up call. It’s a reminder that even the biggest companies must follow the law. And when they don’t, they can be held accountable.