Clothing Optional? The US Supreme Court Rules Employers Need Not Pay Workers for Time Spent Putting On/Taking Off Protective Gear

January 27, 2014

Today the United States Supreme Court held that time spent “donning and doffing” protective clothing is not compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp, Sandifer and other steelworkers filed a putative collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (the Act), seeking back pay for time spent donning and doffing protective gear (a flame-retardant jacket, pair of pants, and hood; a hardhat; a snood; wristlets; work gloves; leggings; metatarsal boots; safety glasses; earplugs; and a respirator) that they assert the employer requires workers to wear because of hazards at its steel plants. The trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment in pertinent part, holding that the workers’ donning and doffing constituted changing clothes under the Act, Section 203(o). The trial court also assumed that any time spent donning and doffing items that were not “clothes” was de minimis and not compensable. The 7th Circuit affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the time the workers spend donning and doffing their protective gear is not compensable by operation of Section 203(o) because the workers’ donning and doffing of protective gear qualifies as “changing clothes” within the meaning of Section 203(o) under the Act.

If you have questions regarding the above, please contact Sara Ackermann, the author of this article, or any of the attorneys in the Employment, Benefits & Labor Relations Practice Group of Ruder Ware.

Note: The Sandifer decision is very narrow. Section 203(o) of the Act referenced in this e-alert provides an exception for time spent changing clothes at the beginning and end of the workday if expressly excluded by the terms of, or custom or practice under, a collective bargaining agreement. The Sandifer decision does not address a non-union employer’s obligation to pay employees for donning and doffing clothing and/or protective gear.

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