On January 27, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion in the Sandifer v U.S. Steel Corp. case. This case was brought by a group of steelworkers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA“) to seek backpay for time spent donning and doffing various pieces of protective gear. The steelworkers claimed that the company they worked for, U.S. Steel Corporation required them to wear all of the items because of hazards regularly encountered in steel plants. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the steelworker’s employers.
In the facts of this case, the steelworkers worked in a factory in Gary, Indiana and were unionized. They brought up to their management the issue of being compensated for time spent changing from their clothes into flame retardant clothes designed to protect them against workplace hazard. The question was whether the time spent by the workers could be excluded from compensable time even though the applicable collective bargaining agreement excluded time spent “changing clothes” from the compensable workday, as permitted by section 203(o) of the FLSA which states that “there shall be excluded any time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday which was excluded from measured working time during the week involved by the express terms of or by custom or practice under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement applicable to the particular employee.”
This case turned on the Court’s interpretation of the language “changing clothes”. U.S. Steel argued “changing clothes” refers to “the activity of donning and doffing the entire outfit worn by an employee to be ready to work.” Sandifer, however, contended that “changing” encompasses the substitution of clothes for other clothes, but that the meaning of “clothes” in section 203(o) is ambiguous.
The Supreme Court stated in its opinion that: “petitioners’ donning and doffing of the protective gear at issue qualifies as ‘changing clothes’ within the meaning of section 203(o). Petitioners have pointed to twelve particular items: a flame-retardant jacket, pair of pants, and hood; a hardhat; a snood; wristlets; work gloves; leggings; metatarsal boots; safety classes; earplugs; and a respirator.” The Supreme Court concluded that most of the gear that the steelworkers had to change into could be considered clothing.
The Supreme Court also stated that they agreed with: “the basic perception of the Courts of Appeals that it is most unlikely Congress meant §203(o) to convert federal judges into time-study professionals. That is especially so since the consequence of dispensing with the intricate exercise of separating the minutes spent clothes-changing and washing from the minutes devoted to other activities is not to prevent compensation for the uncovered segments, but merely to leave the issue of compensation to the process of collective bargaining. We think it is possible to give the text of §203(o) a meaning that avoids such relatively inconsequential judicial involvement in “a morass of difficult, fact-specific determinations.” Therefore, the steelworkers did not have to be paid for the time they spend “donning and doffing.”