Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Holds that Unionized Workers Need Not be Paid for Time Spent “Donning and Doffing” Safety Clothing under FLSA

In a 9-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it harder for unionized steel workers to be paid for time spent changing into and out of safety clothes before and after work unless this activity is specifically addressed in their union’s collective bargaining agreement. The Fair Labor Standards Act excludes “changing clothes” from the time for which unionized employees must be paid, unless negotiated otherwise, even where the clothing at issue is wearable safety gear like flame retardant jackets and pants, work gloves, wristlets, hard hats, safety glasses, earplugs and respirators. The steel workers had argued that these safety items were “personal protective equipment” rather than clothing.

Justice Scalia wrote the opinion on behalf of the Court, holding that most of the listed items are “commonly regarded as articles of dress.” He acknowledged that some of the items, like safety glasses, ear plugs and respirators were not clothes, but indicated that he did not want to draw that distinction in order to avoid burdening federal judges with the task of sorting items and counting minutes between clothes and equipment. If the “vast majority” of the time is spent changing clothes, but some of the time is also spent putting on and taking off equipment, then the whole time will be viewed as changing clothes.  If the vast majority of time is spent on equipment and some of the time is spent changing clothes, then the time is to be considered as donning and doffing safety equipment.

There are two immediate observations on this ruling: (1) while the Court has finally taken steps toward defining “clothes” under the Fair Labor Standards Act, it did so in the context of the steel industry. There are a variety of other industries, such as meat processing and packing, in which the “clothes” vs. “equipment” battle will continue; and (2) to the extent that the Court has declared that an employee’s activity of changing of a potentially wide variety of clothing is uncompensated time, labor unions have new guidance on this issue and a fresh issue on which to bargain for compensation and/or to organize employees.

Read the Sandifer v. U.S. Steel decision here.