The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that U.S. Steel was not required to compensate its employees for time spent donning and doffing protective gear. The Court reasoned that the collective bargaining agreement between U.S. Steel and the union representing the plaintiffs provided that the time donning and doffing protective gear would not be compensable, and the protective gear fell within the definition of “clothes” as that term is used in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The decision comes as a victory for employers with unionized workforces and provides clarity about how courts will address donning-and-doffing issues in the future.
In Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., approximately 800 current and former U.S. Steel employees brought a putative class action. Their complaint alleged that U.S. Steel had violated the FLSA by failing to compensate them for time spent putting on and taking off 12 items of protective gear, including flame-retardant jackets, pants, hoods, hard hats, work gloves, boots, safety glasses, earplugs, and respirators.
The district court had already determined that the time the employees spent donning and doffing protective gear would otherwise be compensable, but the collective bargaining agreement between U.S. Steel and the employees’ union provided that the time at issue would not be. The Supreme Court’s decision turned on whether donning and doffing protective gear fell within Section 203(o) of the FLSA. This section provides that, pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, employers may deny compensation to employees for time spent “changing clothes.”
Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia affirmed a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decision that the time employees spend donning and doffing protective gear is subject to Section 203(o) and therefore properly uncompensated when designated as unpaid time under a collective bargaining agreement. Determining that the term “clothes” in Section 203(o) should be interpreted in accordance with its ordinary meaning, the Court found the term denotes “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.”
While broad, this definition excludes wearable accessories, tools, and equipment that are not commonly regarded as articles of dress. The Court also held that the phrase “changing clothes” refers to time spent altering dress, which may include putting on protective gear over street clothes.
Applying these principles, Justice Scalia concluded that nine of the 12 items of protective gear at issue qualified as “clothes” under Section 203(o). The rest—safety glasses, earplugs, and respirators—could not satisfy this definition because they were not commonly regarded as articles of dress. Justice Scalia found that there was no obligation to deduct the time spent putting on or taking off these three items from the non-compensable time, reasoning that Congress did not intend “to convert federal judges into time-study professionals.”
Consequently, employers should determine whether the time employees spend donning and doffing protective gear or other articles of dress can be fairly categorized as time spent in changing clothes. If an employee spends a majority of the donning-and-doffing time putting on or taking off “clothes,” as defined by the Court, this entire period may be uncompensated pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement. If the majority of the time involves donning and doffing other items, then the entire period must be compensable.
This decision is only directly applicable to employers with unionized workforces, because Section 203(o) makes the compensability of time spent changing clothes a subject committed to collective bargaining. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Court’s ruling is a harbinger of broader changes to employer obligations to compensate employees for time spent changing clothes in non-unionized workplaces.