Supreme Court Clarifies Employer’s Obligation to Compensate Employees

Supreme Court Clarifies Employer’s Obligation to Compensate Employees

February 12, 2014

On January 27, 2014, the US Supreme Court rendered its decision in Sandifer v. US Steel Corp., a wage and hour class action brought by a group of steelworkers. At issue was the compensability of time employees spent taking on and off their work attire at the job site – commonly known as “donning and doffing.”

Sandifer hinged on the application of 29 U.S.C. § 203(o), an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that provides “time spent changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday” is not compensable if the time spent performing these activities were “excluded from measured working time… by the express terms of or by custom or practice under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement applicable to the particular employee.” The FLSA sets the Federal standard for minimum wage, overtime pay, and maximum hours for non-exempt employees; while, certain amendments to the FLSA, such as § 203(o), relieve employers from an obligation to compensate employees for certain categories of worker activities.

The Sandifer employees argued that donning and doffing protective gear did not qualify as “changing clothes” within the meaning of 29 USC § 203(o), thus they were owed compensation for this daily activity.  The Supreme Court began its analysis by examining what congress meant by the term “clothes.” Although the employees maintained that “clothes” excludes items designed to protect against workplace hazards (such as safety gear), the Court disagreed, concluding that such a definition would render § 203(o) meaningless. Under § 203(o), employers need not compensate employees for donning and doffing that is integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which they are employed. The court noted that protective gear is often the only clothing that is integral and indispensable to a host of occupations – including factory workers, butchers, and longshoremen. Adopting the definition of “clothes” offered by the employees would limit the application of § 203(o) to “workers’ costumes” such as uniforms worn by waiters and doormen, a premise the Court disagreed with in practice and based on the legislative history of the statute.

The employees also argued they were not actually “changing,” substituting one set of clothing for another, when they donned and doffed their protective gear, thus rendering §203(o) inapplicable. Although the Court conceded that “changing clothes” can literally require “substitution” of one set of attire for another, it concluded the statute requires a broader definition to include time spent “altering dress.” The strict definition of “changing” offered by the employees, in the Court’s view, could mean that compensation for putting on a company-issued shirt might turn on something as trivial as whether an employee did or did not take off the t-shirt he wore into work that day (whether or not the employee fully substituted his work clothes for his personal attire).

Applying this analysis the Court concluded that the period spent donning and doffing protective gear qualified as time “changing clothes” under § 203(o) and was noncompensable for the steelworker employees. The Court also ruled that while some attire worn by the employees was not “clothing” in the traditional sense, such as earplugs and safety goggles, if the majority of a period of time is spent donning and doffing “clothes,” then the entire period qualifies as time “changing clothes” and the time spent putting on and off other items need not be compensated.

In practice, the Court’s ruling means the compensability of time spent changing clothes or washing remains a subject appropriately committed to collective bargaining.

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