U.S. Supreme Court Issues Ruling on ‘Changing Clothes’ and Compensation under FLSA

by Ballard Spahr LLP

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.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Ballard Spahr LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Ballard Spahr LLP

Ballard Spahr LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.