Supreme Court Rules on Meaning of Changing Clothes Under the FLSA

Monday, February 3, 2014
In Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., U.S. (January 27, 2014), the Supreme Court ruled that the time spent by employees donning and doffing (putting on and taking off) their protective gear is not compensable by operation of §203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  

The case was brought by employees of U.S. Steel under the FLSA seeking backpay for time spent donning and doffing certain pieces of protective gear that United Steel required them to wear because of hazards at the steel plants.  U.S. Steel argued that time was not compensable based on a provision of the collective bargaining agreement with the employees' union.  The Supreme Court had to determine whether the provision of the collective bargaining agreement was valid under §203(o) of the FLSA which allows parties to bargain over whether time spent changing clothes at the beginning or the end of the workday must be compensated.  

The Court looked at the definition of "clothes" and determined that there was nothing in §203(o) which would suggest anything other than the ordinary meaning.  The exception to the section applies only when the changing of clothes is an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which the workers are employed.  The Court had adopted an interpretation which leaves room for distinguishing between clothes and wearable items from equipment and devices.  The broader statutory context makes plain that “time spent in changing clothes” includes time spent in altering dress. Whether one exchanges street clothes for work clothes or simply chooses to layer one over the other may be a matter of purely personal choice, and §203(o) should not be read to allow workers to opt into or out of its coverage at random or at will when another reading is textually permissible. 

The Court found that in this case it was evident that the donning and doffing qualified as “changing clothes” under §203(o). Of the 12 items mentioned by the employees, only 3—safety glasses, earplugs, and a respirator—did not fit within the interpretation of “clothes.”   The Court determined that a more appropriate way to determine whether the period at issue can, on the whole, be fairly characterized as “time spent in changing clothes or washing” should be used.  If an employee devotes the vast majority of that time to putting on and taking off equipment or other non-clothes items, the entire period would not qualify as “time spent in changing clothes” under §203(o), even if some clothes items were also donned and doffed. But if the vast majority of the time is spent in donning and doffing “clothes” as defined here, the entire period qualifies, and the time spent putting on and off other items need not be subtracted. 
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