SUPREME COURT DECISION:
Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp.
FLSA –Donning and Doffing of Protective Clothes at the Beginning and End of Each Work Day
On Monday, January 27, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a unanimous decision in Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., — S.Ct. —-, 2014 WL 273241 (January 27, 2014).
In Sandifer the Court addressed whether under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), unionized steel workers at U.S. Steel’s Indiana plants were entitled to compensation for time spent prior to and after each shift changing in to and out of (donning and doffing) the following “protective gear:” flame-retardant jacket; pair of pants; hood; hardhat; “snood;” wristlets; work gloves; leggings; metatarsal boots; safety glasses; earplugs and respirator, where the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the employees and U.S. Steel expressly excluded time spent changing clothes before the beginning of and after the end of the work day.
The unionized employees sued U.S. Steel, alleging that U. S. Steel had violated the FLSA by failing to pay them for the time spent donning and doffing this “protective gear.” U.S. Steel argued that it was not required to pay the employees for this time, because the express terms of the collective bargaining agreement between U.S. Steel and the union representing the employee excluded time spent changing clothes from hours worked as permitted under section 203(o) of the FLSA.
Section 203(o) of the FLSA provides, in relevant summary, an exception to the general rule that employees must be paid for all “hours worked.” Section 203(o) allows employers to exclude from “hours worked” “any time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday” if agreed to in the terms of or by custom or practice under a bone fide collective bargaining agreement. 29 U.S.C. 203(o).
Writing for the unanimous Court, Justice Scalia framed the issue as follows:
Because this donning and doffing time would otherwise be compensable under the [FLSA], U.S. Steel’s contention of non-compensability stands or falls upon the validity of a provision of its collective bargaining agreement with the . . . union, which says that this time is noncompensable. The validity of that provision depends in turn upon the applicability of [section] 203(o) to the time at issue.
The Plaintiffs argued section 203(o) did not apply to the time at issue because the “protective gear” was not “clothes” within the meaning of section 203(o). U.S. Steel argued to the contrary, that “protective gear” were “clothes” within the meaning of section 203(o). Thus, ultimately, the answer to the question turned on whether the above described “protective gear” was “clothes” within the meaning of section 203(o) of the FLSA.
The Plaintiff’s argued that the term “clothes” required that the item be worn for “decency and comfort”, thus necessarily excluding items worn for safety and/or protection.
U.S. Steel argued that “clothes” included the entire “outfit” put on by an employee to be ready for work.
The Supreme Court rejected both of these definitions. Citing Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, the Supreme Court concluded that ‘clothes” means “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.” The Court reasoned that there is no basis to conclude that the term “clothes” omits protective clothing.
Applying this dictionary definition of “clothes”, the Supreme Court then ruled that the first nine of the twelve listed items, a flame-retardant jacket; pair of pants; a hood; a hardhat; a “snood”; wristlets; work gloves; leggings; and metatarsal boots were “clothes” within the meaning of section 203(o) of the FLSA. Accordingly the time spent changing in to and out of these items while otherwise compensated hours worked, was subject to exclusion from hours worked by operation of section 203(o) and the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between U.S. Steel and its employees’ union.
The remaining three items: ear plugs; protective glasses; and the respirator however, were not “clothes.” The Supreme Court further ruled that the time spent donning and doffing these items thus could not be excluded from hours worked under section 203(o).
The Court’s ruling is a significant win for unionized employers especially in industries where the donning of protective “clothes” is necessary to perform the work. The Sandifer case allows employers to bargain with unionized employees to reduce or eliminate otherwise compensable time spent changing in to and out of protective “clothes at the beginning and end of the work day.”
The Court’s ruling potentially has a less favorable result for non-union employers. As noted above, the Supreme Court at the outset of its Opinion concluded that the time spent donning and doffing a flame-retardant jacket; pair of pants; a hood; a hardhat; a “snood”; wristlets; work gloves; leggings; metatarsal boots; ear plugs; safety glasses; and a respirator was compensable time under the FLSA, not preliminary or postliminary activities subject to exclusion from hours worked. This conclusion by the Court suggests that employers may be required to pay employees for time spent donning and doffing even the most simple items of protective clothing or gear; including hard hats, gloves, ear plugs and safety glasses.
We recommend that employers review the clothing and protective gear worn by employees and evaluate whether their current compensation practices are in conformity with the Court’s rulings in Sandifer.
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