In a unanimous opinion, the United States Supreme Court held in Sandifer et al., v. United States Steel Corp., 571 U.S. __ (January 27, 2014) that the time employees spent “donning and doffing” protective gear was not compensable by operation of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), as it is a subject appropriately committed to collective bargaining.
Clifton Sandifer, along with a group of current and former employees ("Petitioners") of U.S. Steel Corp.'s ("U.S. Steel") steelmaking facilities, filed a lawsuit under the FLSA against U.S. Steel seeking backpay for time spent putting on and removing various pieces of protective gear. The Petitioners asserted that U.S. Steel required its workers to wear all of the protective items because of hazards regularly encountered in steel plants. The various protective items included: a flame-retardant jacket, a pair of pants, a hood, a hardhat, a snood, wristlets, work gloves, leggings, metatarsal boots, safety glasses, earplugs, and a respirator.
While Petitioners claimed that the time spent donning and doffing protective gear was compensable under the FLSA, U.S. Steel’s contention of noncompensability hinged on the validity of a provision of its collective-bargaining agreement with Petitioners’ union, which stated that this time was noncompensable. The validity of that provision depended on the applicability and meaning of “changing clothes” within 29 U.S.C. § 203(o), which states that parties may decide, as part of a collective-bargaining agreement, that the “time spent in changing clothes… at the beginning or end of each workday” is noncompensable.
The district court awarded summary judgment to U.S. Steel, holding that donning and doffing protective gear constituted “changing clothes” within the meaning of § 203(o), and was thus noncompensable by way of the parties’ collective-bargaining agreement. Even if some of the items did not constitute “clothes,” such as the hardhat, glasses, and earplugs, the district Court held that the time spent donning and doffing these items was “de minimis,” and therefore noncompensable. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed these conclusions.
In writing for the Court, Justice Scalia disagreed with petitioners’ argument that the term “clothes” only encompassed that which was worn for “decency or comfort” and generally excluded anything worn for protection. The Court noted that “protection” and “comfort” are not incompatible, and are often synonymous, as “a parasol protects against the sun, enhancing the comfort of the bearer – just as work gloves protect against scrapes and cuts, enhancing the comfort of the wearer.” The Court held that the term “clothes” did not omit protective clothing, and that the phrase “changing clothes” included time spent altering dress.
The Court did not agree with lower courts’ application of the de minimis non curat lex (the law does not take account of trifles) doctrine to account for time donning and doffing non-clothing items such as safety glasses, earplugs, and respirators. Instead, the Court concluded that courts should inquire as to whether the period at issue can, on the whole, be characterized as “time spent in changing clothes or washing.” Therefore, if the vast majority of the time is spent putting on and taking off clothes, the entire period qualifies, and the time spent putting on and off other items does not need to be subtracted.
Thus, the Court refused to disturb the district court’s factual findings and held that the employees’ time spent donning and doffing protective gear constituted “changing clothes” within the meaning of 29 U.S.C. § 203(o), and was therefore subject to collective bargaining.
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