Should workers be compensated for time spent putting on and taking off safety gear, when the applicable collective bargaining agreement excludes time spent “changing clothes” from the compensable workday and that exclusion is permitted by section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act?
Petitioner Clifton Sandifer and a group of former and current steelworkers sued Respondent U.S. Steel for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"). The steelworkers are represented by United Steelworkers, a labor union which has had a collective bargaining agreement in place with U.S. Steel since 1947. These collective bargaining agreements have stipulated that workers will not be paid for the time it takes to put on their safety gear before they start working or for the time it takes to remove their safety gear after they stop working. FLSA requires employers to pay workers for these activities, but section 203(o) allows exceptions to payment for time spent “changing clothes” when labor unions and management specify otherwise in collective bargaining agreements. The steelworkers in this case argue that putting on safety gear is not encompassed by the phrase “changing clothes,” which they contend only refers to changing from street clothes into work clothes. U.S. Steel argues that safety gear is included within that language and has been appropriately bargained over with the labor union. The decision in this case will clarify what activities are covered by section 203(o) and in doing so will provide clarity to management and labor unions when they collectively bargain over these issues. Specifically, the outcome of the case will determine whether unions may bargain away a statutory right of employees to be paid for time spent putting on and removing required safety gear for work.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the period of time during which a covered employee must be paid begins when the worker engages in a principal activity. Donning and doffing safety gear (including protective clothing) required by the employer is a principal activity when it is an integral and indispensable part of the activities for which the worker is employed. Such requirements are common in manufacturing firms. However, under section 203(o) of the Act an employer need not compensate a worker for time spent in "changing clothes" (even if it is a principal activity) if that time is expressly excluded from compensable time under a bona fide collective bargaining agreement applicable to that worker.
The interrelated questions presented are:
- What constitutes "changing clothes" within the meaning of section 203(o)?
- If a worker's actions are a principal activity but fall within the scope of the section 203(o) exemption, do those actions nonetheless commence the period of time during which (aside from the clothes-changing time) the worker must be compensated?
- If a worker engages in a principal activity which is not exempted by section 203(o), but which involves only a de minimis amount of time, does the activity nonetheless commence the period of time during which the worker must be compensated?
The steelworkers involved in this collective action lawsuit are approximately 800 current or former employees of United States Steel Corporation (“U.S.
- Liberty Cassidy Whitmore: The Meaning of ‘Clothes’ to be Decided by the Supreme Court (Feb. 28, 2013)
- Reuters, Lawrence Hurley: Supreme Court to Hear Workers’ Claims vs U.S. Steel (Feb. 13, 2013)