Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, U.S. Supreme Court No. 12-417, decided January 27, 2014 (appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit), is one of the rarer instances in which the Supreme Court unanimously agrees on something—“clothes” means the ordinary and plain meaning of the word no matter how much the litigants try to torture the definition. More specifically, in the Sandifer case, the definition of “changing clothes” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was at issue.
Section 203(o) of the FLSA provides that, if an employer and a union agree to make “time spent in changing clothes” non-compensable, that time will not be considered for purposes of the FSLA’s minimum wage and overtime provisions. In the instant case, decades old steelworker collective bargaining agreements provide that workers are not paid for the time they spend in dressing in and undressing from clothing and equipment for their workday. Some equipment may be highly specialized, depending on the worker’s job at the steel mill.
U.S. Steel Corporation had successfully argued before the lower Federal courts that putting on and taking off specialized protective clothing was changing clothes. The steelworkers disagreed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a split among the Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal as to what constituted “changing clothes” under the FLSA.
In holding, unanimously, that the workers were “changing clothes” and, therefore, not entitled to the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime protections, the Supreme Court adopted what it believed to be the “plain meaning” of the phrase. Justice Scalia noted that, since the only clothing worn by many workers on the job is protective in nature, adopting the position that “changing clothes” did not refer to such activity in the context of protective gear would virtually nullify Section 203(o) of the FLSA.
The result of the Court’s opinion was a rejection of the broader meaning ascribed to “clothes” in some of the Federal Circuit Courts which had held that anything worn on the body, even accessory items such as “tools and so forth” (e.g. police officers’ side arms) constituted clothing. The Court also went on to state that “changing clothes” also embraces placing protective items over “street” clothes. Furthermore, donning incidental items, such as earplugs, did not change the essence of the act of “changing clothes”.
The end result of the opinion is that the donning and doffing of protective gear, whether by way of taking off street clothes and putting on the protective items or putting protective items over street clothes, constitutes “changing clothes” for purposes of the FLSA. Therefore, the steelworkers’ collective bargaining agreement which states that the time spent in changing clothes is non-compensable triggers Section 203(o) of the FLSA. Consequently, such time is not considered for purposes of minimum wage or overtime calculations under the FLSA.
During this time when so much attention is being focused on worker misclassification, wage theft, unpaid wages and overtime claims, this decision is truly a victory for employers.
Employers who are concerned that they may have workers who are misclassified or may not be properly paying their workers for overtime, should have a labor and employment attorney assess the classification and compensation of their workers before they are contacted by a federal or state agency or a plaintiff’s attorney.