When workers have to change into and out of protective gear at their workplace, does the employer have to pay them for the time it takes to walk from the changing area to where they start their workday? Two employees at ConAgra’s Marshall, MO, frozen food production plant argued the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by failing to pay them and others for the time spent walking between changing stations and the time clock where they punch in at the beginning and end of their shifts.
Initially, the workers sought payment for the time changing into and out of the protective gear and the walking time. But a district court ruled the changing time wasn’t compensable.
For sanitary food handling purposes, the workers have to put on and take off the protective gear at the plant. Their collective bargaining agreement contains language that ensures them ConAgra will provide and wash this gear which remains at the facility overnight.
Since the gear is kept at the plant, the workers couldn’t change at home even if they wanted to.
A district court denied the workers’ request to be paid for the time changing into and out of the gear. The court found the gear they wore constituted clothes, and the FLSA says, unless otherwise covered by a collective bargaining agreement, employers don’t have to pay workers for the time changing clothes.
But the district court also found changing into and out of clothes began and ended the workday, because wearing the uniforms was “integral and indispensable to principal work activity.” So the court denied ConAgra’s request to also throw out the claim for the time spent walking from changing stations to time clocks. ConAgra took its case to the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The circuit court reversed the lower court’s ruling. It noted that the FLSA says a principal work activity is one “which such employee is employed to perform.” So, if the worker isn’t hired to perform an activity, he doesn’t need to be paid for it.
The workers in this case weren’t employed to change their clothes. It was excluded under their collective bargaining agreement.
For that reason, the circuit court found they don’t have to be paid for the time walking from the changing area to the time clock.
Note: The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case this fall regarding payment for time changing clothes or safety gear (Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp.).
What do you think about the circuit court’s ruling in this case? Let us know in the comments below.
(Adair v. ConAgra Foods, U.S. Circuit Crt. 8, No. 12-3565, 8/30/13)