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It’s a common complaint among those who don’t like to use grocery store self-checkouts – they don’t want to be forced to do for free, what cashiers get paid to do. But has anyone ever actually done more than just complain about it?

“Should customers who have used self-checkout form a class action lawsuit asking for lost wages?” a submission on the question-and-answer website Quora once asked. “You could try,” one contributor responded, “but no attorney would ever take the case.”

Well, tell that to Sophia Sadlowski of California. She wondered the same thing as she checked herself out and bagged her own groceries at her local Albertsons. And despite what Quora thinks, she’s managed to find an attorney to take her case.

Sadlowski has filed a lawsuit in San Francisco County Superior Court, seeking payment for herself and other self-checkout users for all of the hours they’ve collectively spent doing cashiers’ work for them.

The lawsuit accuses Albertsons of “systematic violations… of California’s minimum wage laws,” which define an employee as one who is “engaged, suffered or permitted to work.”

“By suffering and permitting its customers to perform cashier work at Albertsons’ stores, Albertsons has created an employment relationship” with its customers who use self-checkout, the lawsuit alleges. “Albertsons has therefore incurred a legal obligation to pay at least the minimum wage for each hour worked.”

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To most, the lawsuit likely seems frivolous on its face. Yet the argument it makes is at least a little persuasive. “The cashier work performed by Albertsons’ customers is substantially identical to the cashier work performed by Albertsons’ paid cashiers,” the lawsuit points out. And Albertsons is the one who ultimately benefits economically, “in the form of lower payroll costs by utilizing the uncompensated work performed by their customers.”

At least one grocery chain once appeared to acknowledge that customers using self-checkout were doing the store a service. So a few years ago, the Australian grocery chain Woolworths offered to “pay” shoppers who scanned and bagged their own groceries, in the form of a 25% discount.

And that was a far more generous deal than what Sadlowski is seeking. 25% off a $100 grocery transaction would give you $25, while earning California’s $15 an hour minimum wage for a theoretical $100 grocery transaction that takes you, say, 10 minutes to complete amounts to $2.50. So Sadlowski’s proposal isn’t likely to make anyone rich.

Regardless, some legal experts who’ve weighed in on the lawsuit aren’t buying it.

“Self-service gas stations have been around for 40+ years. Self-service car washes, even longer. There is ‘work’ involved in everything we do,” employment and labor attorney James Coleman wrote in a recent blog post for his firm Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete. “If an employer offers a self-serve option, that’s a smart employer. Doing so does not make the employer responsible for paying the customers who voluntarily choose to patronize the store and to use self-service instead of a cashier.”

“A store is not legally obligated to pack your bags, and customers who choose to self-pack aren’t employees of the store,” a lawyer wrote in response to that Quora question. “In other words, the store owes you nothing, and any lawsuit premised on the idea that you’re working for the store will fail.”

Sadlowski, and her attorney, are hoping for a different outcome. They’re seeking back pay for all Albertsons shoppers in California who’ve used self-checkout over the past four years. If the case somehow succeeds, it could make self-checkout just a little less annoying. Now if only someone would sue to make those machines stop freezing up at an “unexpected item in the bagging area.”

Image source: Kenneth Lu

2 Comments

  1. ERICH ORSAN says:

    Not to long ago I read on this periodical, Albertsons is getting rid of all it’s self checkouts. Me, I would like to have a choice because of disability.

  2. Just like this ridiculous lawsuit, this article is not worth the time I spent reading it. I hope she gets charged for court costs when they reject it.

    That said, CVS is actually FORCING customers to use SCO by closing all registers at times. That would be a better lawsuit.

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