In a 6-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a circuit court ruling awarding employees at a Tyson Foods pork processing plant $2.9 million in overtime pay for time spent donning and doffing safety gear that was integral and indispensable to their hazardous work.
The Tyson employees worked in the kill, cut and retrim departments at a plant in Iowa. The safety gear they wore depended on the exact nature of their duties. Tyson paid some but not all employees for putting on and taking off safety gear and also didn’t record the amount of time spent on donning and doffing.
The employees sought certification of their wage claims as a class action. Tyson argued the employees’ claims weren’t similar enough to be solved on a class basis.
A district court ruled in favor of the employees, concluding that this sort of case is susceptible to class resolution even if not all of the workers wore the same gear.
Since Tyson didn’t keep records, the employees relied upon an industrial relations expert’s calculations of time spent donning and doffing the safety gear. The expert videotaped workers putting on and taking off the equipment and averaged the time taken to come up with 18 minutes a day for the cut and retrim departments and 21.25 minutes for the kill department.
Tyson argued reliance on the expert’s figures was improper. Despite this argument, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.
Now a six-justice majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Eighth Circuit’s opinion. The majority found the employees used the expert’s averages to fill the gap created because Tyson didn’t keep adequate records. It noted that, had the employees filed separate lawsuits, each would have had to use the expert’s averages because of the lack of timekeeping by Tyson.
The court cautions, however, that its decision shouldn’t be taken as broad acceptance of using this type of average when it comes to wage cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The majority said each case should be considered on its own details.
Now the case will go back to the district court to determine how the $2.9 million in back overtime wages will be distributed to the workers.
(Tyson Foods Inc. v. Bouaphakeo et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-1146, 3/22/16)