The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on whether workers should be paid for their time donning and doffing protective safety gear.
The issue has been bouncing around the federal court system for years. While the courts have not ruled unanimously, they seemed to be reaching a consensus on the issue.
In the case that will be hear by the Supreme Court, U.S. Steel workers in Gary, IN, sued to be paid for the time it takes to put on what they considered to be safety gear.
The gear included flame-retardant pants and jacket, work gloves, steel-toe boots, hard hats, safety glasses, ear plugs, and a “snood” that covers the top of the head, chin and neck.
The issue comes down to this question: Are these items clothing or are they safety gear?
If they’re clothes, the Fair Labor Standards Act is pretty clear that workers don’t get paid for changing into or out of work clothes. But if they’re safety gear, workers might be paid for the donning and doffing time.
The Seventh Circuit Court said, with the exception of the glasses, ear plugs and possibly the hard hat, the items in the U.S. Steel case are both clothes and protective gear. The court said even ordinary clothes provide protection against the sun, wind and cold. For that reason, the workers would not be paid for putting on most of what they wear for their jobs.
But what about the time it takes to put on the safety glasses, ear plugs and hard hat? The court said it takes so little time to put on those items that it wasn’t worth considering pay for the period.
This is where the federal courts are lining up on this issue. In most donning and doffing cases they’ve heard, the courts have said there is nothing in the law that requires workers to be paid for the time it takes to change into or out of clothes.
And as to what it considered above and beyond clothes … what is protective gear? The courts have made the list of qualifying items very small.
This isn’t the first time the U.S. Supreme Court has visited this issue. In 1956, in Steiner v. Mitchell, the Supreme Court ruled “activities, such as the donning and doffing of specialized protective gear that are performed either before or after the regular workshift, on or off the production line, are compensable if those activities are an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed.”
More recently, in 2005, in IBP Inc. v. Alvarez, the Supreme Court ruled workers must be paid for the time spent walking between their changing areas and their work areas after donning and before doffing their specialized protective gear. However, they don’t need to be paid for time spent waiting to don the equipment.
After the Alvarez decision, lower federal courts split on what is considered “specialized protective gear.”
The Supreme Court is expected to hear this case in its next term which begins in October 2013. A ruling might not be made until as late as June 2014.
(Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, Nos. 10-1821, 10-1866, 5/8/12)