Under their union contract at one company, workers were only paid for their “line time.” They weren’t compensated for the time it took to put on or take off safety gear.
More than 250 of them filed a lawsuit, alleging that their employer violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by not paying them for the donning and doffing time, despite what was in the contract.
The workers were employed by a chicken processing plant owned by Allen Family Foods in Delaware. Their personal protective equipment (PPE) included steel-toe shoes, safety glasses, ear plugs, bump caps, hair nets, sleeves, arm shields, and the following gear required by the USDA: smocks, plastic aprons and rubber gloves.
The FLSA contains a clause that allows employers and unions to agree through collective bargaining to exclude “any time spent in changing clothes … at the beginning or end of each workday.”
This lawsuit turns on two words in that FLSA clause: “changing clothes.”
The workers argued that PPE isn’t the same as clothes, and donning and doffing the gear isn’t changing.
The court rejected both arguments and ruled that the employer doesn’t have to pay for the time spent donning and doffing.
The judges turned to the dictionary to help make their decision. Clothes is defined as “covering for the human body.” The court said the PPE served as a covering.
While the employees argued that layering PPE on top of other clothes doesn’t count as changing, the court disagreed. Changing is defined as “modifying in some particular way but short of conversion to something else.” The judges found putting on PPE to be the same as changing.
One more interesting note from this case: The court’s opinion states that the union had proposed that its members be paid for 12 minutes of donning and doffing time per day. However, that didn’t make it into the contract.
What do you think about the court’s ruling? And is it worth it to pay employees for 12 more minutes a day if it would make them more likely to put on and use their PPE correctly? Let us know in the Comments Box below.
Cite: Sepulveda v. Allen Family Foods, U.S. Crt. of Appeals, 4th Circuit, No. 08-2256, 12/29/09 (PDF).