Supreme Court Decides on Compensating Time for “Changing Clothes”

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January 29, 2014 — 2,160 views  
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Employers in industries where employees don work clothes got a shot in the arm when the US Supreme Court ruled that workers do not have to be paid for the time they spend in “donning and doffing” safety gear before or after their shifts. Such actions were not eligible for compensation under Section 203 (o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

US Steel, the employers, said that the time taken to put on or take off work clothes, which could come in for compensation, cannot be compensated as part of a collective-bargaining agreement’s provision made with the union of petitioners.

Defining “Clothes”

Justice Antonin Scalia, on behalf of the court, said items such as pants, leggings or hats were considered “articles of dress,” but added that safety glasses or respirators that some workers have to wear are not viewed as clothes, and that a ruling separating these items would be problematic for judges who handle cases of this nature.

The ruling came in the Sandifer v United States Steel Corp, where the employees had sought pay for time spent putting on and taking off work clothes and protective gear such as a flame retardant jacket, metatarsal boots, safety glasses, respirators, and ear plugs.

The Supreme Court said “clothes” were defined as “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress,” and “that is what we hold to be the meaning of the word” for purposes of the statute.

IBP v Alvarez

A similar case that comes to mind is the IBP v Alvarez case in which the Supreme Court heard in 2005, where poultry processing workers argued that the time taken to wear or take off protective clothing or contraptions should be included in their wages. The Supreme Court had held that wearing or taking off protective clothing was “an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities” of the poultry workers’ job as they could not carry out tasks without them.

Distinction

Going ahead, there will be a line that separates donning and doffing in connection to basically protective equipment where compensation may be claimed, and primarily protective clothes where compensation cannot be given, if they are designated that way under a collective bargaining agreement or CBA. Under Section 203 (o), “a labor union and an employer may agree (in a collective-bargaining agreement) on whether “time spent in changing clothes...at the beginning or end of each workday, be compensable.”

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