Workers Win Their First Case Before the Roberts Court

In a case that perhaps attracted more attention than usual because it was Chief Justice Roberts’ first oral argument and participation in an opinion, workers recently scored a unanimous Supreme Court victory in the case of IBP v. Alvarez. While workers probably shouldn’t expect too many unanimous victories from the Roberts Court, once in a while it’s nice to have one that the Justices view as a no-brainer. While ten or fifteen minutes a day of previously unpaid work time may not sound like much, over time, it can add up to a significant amount, for which workers deserve their full compensation.

On October 3, 2005, the first Monday in October and the traditional start of the U.S. Supreme Court’s new term each year, the excitement was running high: the newly confirmed Chief Justice John Roberts would be presiding over his first oral argument. Unlike the abortion and federalism cases that were the subject of his confirmation hearings, the case was about the right of workers to get paid for their work time, as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Court heard two cases, involving the same issue: when does the work day start for workers required to wear protective gear and walk a considerable distance between the area where they put on the gear, and the production floor where they begin working? In IBP v. Alvarez, the workers in a meat processing facility had to wear “outer garments, hardhats, hairnets, earplugs, gloves, sleeves, aprons, leggings, and boots. Many of them, particularly those who use knives, must also wear a variety of protective equipment for their hands, arms, torsos, and legs; this gear includes chain link metal aprons, vests, plexiglass armguards, and special gloves. ” Getting dressed for the work day clearly wasn’t as simple for these workers as knotting a tie or pulling up stockings, and all that special clothing and accessories had to be stored in a locker room away from the shop floor. The lower court in this case held that the workers were entitled to be paid for both the time spent dressing (as long as it was special protective gear and not just hairnets, earplugs and boots) and the time spent walking from the locker room to the production floor.

In Tum v. Barber, the other case at issue, the workers in a poultry processing plant also wore a variety of types of special protective gear, but were not paid until clocking in at the doorway to the production floor. A jury in that case ruled that the time workers actually spent putting on their clothing was so minimal, that even though the law requires that it be considered work time, it was not enough to warrant compensation. (The lower court had excluded evidence of their walking time.) Given that essentially the same issue came up in both cases, with different results, the Supreme Court’s ruling would establish a rule applicable to everyone.

The case involved interpreting the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal law which requires employees to be paid for their time worked, an amendment to the FLSA called the “Portal-to-Portal Act,” and regulations established by the Department of Labor interpreting the law. The question that the Supreme Court would have to answer is whether wearing the special protective gear was so “integral and indispensable” to the work that it could not be separated from the work itself, so that once the gear was on, the workers were on duty, even though they might then have to walk or wait before performing specific work duties on the production line. Or was it to be considered “preliminary or postliminary” to the principal work activities, so that workers did not have to be paid until actually performing production work?

On November 8, a little over a month since the case was heard, the Roberts Court issued its first opinions. (See Associated Press article.) In the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion, written by Justice Stevens (who announced that the opinion was “remarkably interesting” as it was released), the Court ruled that the first principal activity of the work day was donning the special protective clothing, so that workers should be paid the entire time that they are wearing the protective gear. Any walking or waiting that occurred after the clothing was on should be paid time, while any walking or waiting that occurred before the clothing was on should not be paid time.

While this case may not affect those who wear their uniforms to work, only have to throw on an apron, or who don’t wear uniforms at all, for those who spend ten or fifteen minutes each day suiting up, it will be welcome relief. Since it’s not safe or permissible to work without the required gear, that time is clearly for the employer’s benefit and part of the work day. In an environment where it seems that workers are losing ground in terms of giving time back to their employers (checking e-mails and taking work-related phone calls at home, forgoing vacation and sick time, even having bathroom breaks monitored), every last minute helps, both in terms of getting paid and/or reducing the length of the work day. Now workers in production facilities, depending on the layout of the plant and the time needed for dressing, might only be on the production floor for 7 1/2 hours of their 8-hour shift.

It’s also a welcome sign that even the more conservative members of the Court recognize that some laws protecting workers remain vital and strong. It certainly didn’t hurt that the Administration was on the workers’ side in this case, but even still, we’re not likely to have that many unanimous decisions in favor of workers from this Supreme Court, regardless of the outcome of Samuel Alito’s nomination for Justice O’ Connor’s seat on the Court. While it seems inevitable these days that judicial interpretation has become politicized, especially as it relates to the rights of workers, it’s nice to know that laws originally passed in 1938 (the FLSA) and 1947 (the Portal-to-Portal Act) still maintain their vitality.

More Information:

Workplace Fairness: what is “work time?”

National Employment Lawyers Association: Tum/Alvarez amicus brief (NELA’s amicus (friend of the court) brief was supported by a grant from Workplace Fairness).

International Labor Communications Association: Justice Roberts Hears Two Work-Related Cases

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.