The United States Supreme Court decided today, in an almost unanimous opinion written by Justice Scalia (Justice Sotomayor didn’t join one footnote), a donning and doffing case under the Fair Labor Standards Act in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation.
According to the syllabus of the case, Sandifer and others filed a putative collective action under the FLSA, seeking backpay for time spent donning and doffing pieces of protective gear that they asserted U.S. Steel requires workers to wear because of hazards at its steel plants. U. S. Steel contends that this donning-and-doffing time, which would otherwise be compensable under the Act, is noncompensable under a provision in the collective-bargaining agreement.
That provision’s validity depends on 29 U. S. C. §203(o), which allows parties to collectively bargain over whether “time spent in changing clothes . . . at the beginning or end of each workday” must be compensated. The District Court granted U. S. Steel summary judgment in pertinent part, holding that petitioners’ donning and doffing constituted “changing clothes” under §203(o). The Seventh Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court held that the the time the workers spent donning and doffing their protective gear was not compensable by operation of §203(o). More specifically, the Court construed “clothes” in “changing of clothes” to mean items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress. Nothing in §203(o)’s text or context, according to the Court, suggests anything other than this ordinary meaning. Thus, it concluded that there was no basis for the employees’ assertion that the unmodified term “clothes” somehow omits protective clothing.
Going forward, the Court stated that a more appropriate way to proceed is for courts to ask whether the period at issue can, on the whole, be fairly characterized as “time spent in changing clothes or washing.” If an employee devotes the vast majority of that time to putting on and off equipment or other non-clothes items, the entire period would not qualify as “time spent in changing clothes” under §203(o), even if some clothes items were also donned and doffed. So going forward, a distinction, for compensation purposes, will be made between between donning and doffing involving primarily protecive equipment (compensation ) as opposed to primarily protective clothing (not compensable if designated as such under the applicable CBA).
Don’t you just love donning and doffing cases? 😀
This article was originally printed on Workplace Prof Blog on January 27, 2014. Reprinted with permission.