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In Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp. (Jan. 24, 2014),  the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously concluded that U.S. Steel Corp. is not required to compensate a class of workers for the time they spent putting on and taking off hardhats, gloves, flame-retardant suits and other protective gear. Sandifer is a victory for employers defending FLSA claims, particularly where they have either expressly negotiated or established a custom and practice with their unionized workers of not compensating for “Donning” and “Doffing” time.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employees must generally be paid for time spent donning and doffing protective clothing if they are required by law or the employer to change into such clothing at the work site. However, Section 29 U.S.C. §203(o) of the Act allows parties to collectively bargain over whether “time spent in changing clothes . . . at the beginning or end of each workday” must be compensated.

US Steel and the workers were part of a collective bargaining agreement under which the workers were not to be compensated for time spent “changing clothes” either before or after their shifts.  At issue was whether the class of workers was entitled to back pay for time spent donning and doffing protective items, or whether such time was included in the time spent “changing clothes”.

The United States District Court granted summary judgment and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed ruling in favor of US Steel. On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed, explaining that “on the whole” the US Steel employees were changing clothes, despite the fact that three of the twelve required items (safety glasses, earplugs, and a respirator) were not clothing.

This case should be considered in drafting collective bargaining agreements and will impact future cases in at least two ways.

First, future cases will need to analyze whether the period at issue can, on the whole, be fairly characterized as “time spent in changing clothes or washing.” The Court cautioned that if the employees spend the majority of time putting on and off equipment or other non-clothing items, then the entire period would not qualify as time spent changing clothing, even if some clothing was included during the period.

Second, this case has significant importance because employees may seek back pay awards as a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act. As the Court noted in Sandifer, “in the aggregate, the amount of time—and thus money—involved is likely to be quite large.” Future courts will analyze the Supreme Court’s guidance and definition of clothing: “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.” Now that clothing has been defined by the Supreme Court, future litigation may focus on what is and what is not clothing under the Supreme Court’s definition.

Please contact Joseph Spitzzeri for assistance in defending FLSA litigation or if you need assistance addressing employment issues.  A copy of the full opinion is available on the Supreme Court’s website:

http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/12-417_9okb.pdf