On January 27, 2014, the United States Supreme Court resolved a long-standing and hotly-contested issue of importance to unions, when it held that time spent donning and doffing required protective gear was not compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., No. 12–417.
The plaintiffs had filed a putative collective action under the FLSA, seeking back pay for time spent donning and doffing pieces of protective gear that they were required to wear because of hazards in the workplace.
U. S. Steel contended that this donning-and-doffing time, which would otherwise be compensable under the FLSA, was not compensable based on a provision in the collective bargaining agreement with the petitioners’ union. The Supreme Court stated that the “validity of that provision depends, in turn, upon the applicability of 29 U. S. C. §203(o) to the time at issue.”
Under §203(o), which was added to the FLSA in 1949, 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” will be compensable. (Emphasis added.)
In Sandifer, both the District Court and the Seventh Circuit had sided with the employer. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that the time the workers spent donning and doffing their protective gear was not compensable by operation of the collective bargaining agreement and §203(o).
The Supreme Court’s ruling turned on whether the donning and doffing of protective gear qualified as “changing clothes” under §203(o).
In determining that donning and doffing protective gear qualifies as “changing clothes,” the Court held that “[d]ictionaries from the era of §203(o)’s enactment indicate that ‘clothes’ denotes items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress… That is what we hold to be the meaning of the word as used in §203(o).”
The Supreme Court then stated: “We see no basis for the proposition that the unmodified term ‘clothes’ somehow omits protective clothing.”
The Court further held that “time spent in changing clothes” includes any time spent in “altering dress.”
Accordingly, The Supreme Court held that whether one completely puts on different clothes in the workplace, or put a uniform over what he was wearing, the time spent on such activities may be non-compensable under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement.
This has been a matter of considerable interest to manufacturing labor unions and so it is notable that the decision of the Court was unanimous (though Sotomayor, J., disagreed with one footnote).
Unionized employers ranging from hospitals and hotels and restaurants to manufacturers will be interested in the holding in the Sandifer case, and should consider its impact in future collective bargaining negotiations.