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Employment Blog

Supreme Court of Wisconsin Opens a Can: Rules Against Hormel in Donning and Doffing Case

Authored by Ruder Ware Attorneys
Posted on March 2, 2016
Filed under Employment

On March 1, 2016, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin issued its opinion in UFCW Local 1473 v. Hormel Foods Corporation.  This is a pre-shift “donning” [putting on required clothes/equipment] and post-shift “doffing” [taking off required clothes/equipment] wage and hour case.  The workers and their union argued that time spent “donning” and “doffing” at Hormel’s canning facility in Beloit, Wisconsin, is compensable time under Wisconsin wage and hour laws.  The claim in this case is that this “donning” and “doffing” time—5.7 minutes per workday [approximately 24 hours each year]—was not accounted for each day at the canning plant, resulting in workers working more than 40 hours per workweek without receiving overtime pay. 

Hormel raised two common defenses in cases such as this [(1) non-compensable preliminary and postliminary activities and (2) de minimis time]—to no avail.  According to the Court, the “donning” and “doffing” time, “brought Hormel into compliance with federal food and safety regulations and was integral and indispensable to sanitation and safety in the employees' principal work activities, namely food production.”  For this reason, the Court concluded that such time could not be reasonably characterized as non-compensable, as Hormel advocated.   The Court also opined that the wages involved were not “trifle,” and thus, could not be exempted as de minimis time.

According to the Court:

Hormel's Work Rules require employees to wear Hormel-provided hard hats, hearing protection, and eye protection. All exposed head and facial hair must be covered by a hair net. Employees are to wear clean and sanitary footwear at all times. Clothing is provided by Hormel and must be changed daily or more often (as good sanitation practices dictate) and shall not be worn outside the plant. Hormel leases the clothes from Aramark, which picks up worn clothes, launders them, and drops off clean clothes.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the opinion, however, involved the union’s claim that time workers spent “donning” and “doffing” in order to leave the manufacturing campus for lunch, deprived such employees of a bona fide meal break, and converted such meal breaks into compensable, on-duty lunch breaks.  The union claimed that the “donning” and “doffing” activities cut into the workers’ off-duty, 30-minute breaks, and thus, employees were not completely relieved from duty during this time period.  The lower court found this argument to be persuasive.  The Supreme Court, however, would not affirm the lower court’s endorsement of the union’s argument—but instead left this question open for another day, in another case.   Here, the parties had previously stipulated to a nominal damages award to resolve this issue—the Court treated that settlement as outcome determinative, without definitively addressing whether the “donning” and “doffing” time nullified the bona fide meal breaks and made the 30-minute period compensable. 

In light of this decision, Wisconsin manufacturing employers are encouraged to reexamine “donning” and “doffing” practices—especially those that may cut into a worker’s bona fide, 30-minute meal break.