Confused about whether you’re required to pay workers for the time they spend putting on and taking off their required safety gear? You’re not alone. Yet another federal court has weighed in on the issue.
The Fourth Circuit, in a recent decision, says, “Pay them” … sometimes.
Workers at Mountaire Farms chicken processing plant in Millsboro, DE, filed a lawsuit to be paid for the time spent donning and doffing protective gear during the workday.
A lower court had ruled that the time spent putting on and taking off safety gear at the start, end and lunch break times was compensable.
The company appealed that decision to the Fourth Circuit.
All Mountaire production employees are required to wear ear plugs, bump caps, smocks, hair and beard nets, and steel-toed rubber boots. Some production employees are also required to wear gloves, aprons and safety glasses. These are requirements of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and OSHA.
Employees also take off their protective gear for their unpaid lunch break and then have to put it back on to return to work.
The workers and the company each provided their own witnesses to show how long it takes for the workers to don and doff their gear each day. The workers said it was about 21 minutes a day. The company said it was 10 minutes.
The court noted that previous federal court decisions said employees must be paid for their time spent performing a “principal activity” for their jobs if the task it required by law, company policy or by the nature of the work performed.
As noted, the protective gear is required by government regulations. So the court found the Mountaire employees should be paid for the time putting on their gear at the start of shifts and taking it off at the end of shifts.
However, federal courts had ruled previously that workers don’t have to be paid for the time it takes them to take off and put the gear back on for lunch breaks. The Fourth Circuit said it would follow that precedent.
The court also determined that the actual amount of time workers spent donning and doffing safety gear each day at the start and end of each shift was 10 minutes.
Mountaire tried to argue that ten minutes a day was a minimal amount of time and therefore non-compensable.
But the court noted that, over the course of one year, ten minutes a day would equal slightly more than one week’s pay.
The court’s decision: Pay the workers for their ten minutes a day donning and doffing safety gear, and pay them retroactively for the time over the previous two years.
Although there have been differing federal court rulings on this question, this is the general direction the judiciary seems to be going in: If the gear in question is required by government regulation and a union agreement doesn’t specifically exempt the time, pay workers for putting on and taking off safety gear at the start and end of their shifts, but not at lunch times.
What do you think about the court’s ruling? Let us know in the Comments Box below. Click here for a PDF of the court’s decision.
(Perez v. Mountaire Farms, U.S. Circuit Crt. 4, No. 09-1917, 6/7/2011)