The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently considered whether an employer should be required to pay its employees for the time required to put on and remove specialized safety clothing and protective gear. Alvarez v. IBP, Inc., 2003 WL 21788995.
Employees of the IBP meatpacking plant were required to be at their stations, outfitted in specialized clothing and safety gear, before the first piece of meat passed. Gear for all employees included sanitary outer garments, hard hats, hearing protection, hairnets, safety goggles, gloves, liquid-repelling sleeves, aprons, leggings, and safety boots. “Knife” employees also wore metal mesh aprons, leggings, vests, sleeves, Kevlar gloves, and plexiglass arm guards. Because much of this gear was cleaned between shifts, the employees also had to walk between specific locations and wait for the delivery of various items of clean gear.
Despite this time-consuming process of preparation, their paid eight-hour shift began only with the processing of the first piece of meat and ended with the processing of the last piece. During their unpaid lunch break, the employees had to remove most of the outer protective gear before they could eat and then replace the gear and be at their stations before the end of the 30 minute period. At the end of their shift, the employees were not allowed to leave the plant until they removed and cleaned their gear or turned in those items cleaned by others. The employees sued, seeking wages for the time they spent performing these mandatory tasks.
The federal trial judge ruled in their favor. Finding that both federal and Washington state law required that they be paid because of the complicated nature of the protective clothing, the court granted double damages to the employees. IBP appealed.
Appellate Court’s Decision
Applying the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the Court initially observed that IBP was required to pay its employees for all of the time they “worked.” Because wearing the special safety gear was “integral and indispensable” to the job – required by law and IBP’s own work rules — and done for IBP’s benefit, time spent putting on and removing the gear was “work.” The Court flatly rejected IBP’s argument that the time was non-compensable as merely “changing clothes.” The Court, however, determined that putting on basic, non-unique, safety gear, like hardhats and hearing protection, was not compensable because it required only a few moments beyond the normal work hours. Nevertheless, once the work day commenced as the employees began putting on the specialized gear, it did not stop during the “walking and waiting” time necessary to retrieve, dispose of, or clean particular items.
The Court also dismissed IBP’s argument that it was shielded from liability because it operated in a good faith effort to follow the law. IBP’s claimed reliance on a Department of Labor litigation strategy was not the equivalent of relying on a regulation or opinion letter and the Court viewed IBP’s interim addition of four minutes to each end of the workday as merely a settlement strategy in similar litigation, not a realistic attempt to comply with the law. As a result, the limitations period was extended from two years to three and the employees recovered double damages, in addition to accrued overtime pay.