In Mitchell v. JCG Industries, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit recently rendered a decision in favor of an employer in an action brought by employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Illinois Minimum Wage Law (IMWL). The Plaintiffs had appealed the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois grant of summary judgment for the employer. Plaintiffs employed in a poultry processing plant in Chicago were seeking compensation for time spent donning and doffing (“changing”) their required protective work gear (sterilized jacket, plastic apron, cut-resistant gloves, plastic sleeves, earplugs, and a hairnet) on top of the employee’s street clothes. The plaintiffs were line workers represented by a union with a collective bargaining agreement with the employer which made the entire meal period non-compensable. The principle issue was whether the time spent changing during the lunch break was time that must be compensated. This opinion may be influential nationwide as federal district courts in Tennessee and Indiana have cited this case, but distinguished  Mitchell’s facts from the facts of the case at hand.

With respect to the FLSA claim, the 7th Circuit analyzed the issue through (i) statutory construction of the FLSA and whether a “workday” could be interpreted to include time spent changing work gear during a bona fide 30-minute lunch break, and (ii) the effect of the collective bargaining agreement between the union and employer, and in conjunction with thede minimis doctrine. Although the FLSA excludes from measured working time and compensation any time spent in changing clothes at the beginning or at the ending of each workday, the plaintiffs asserted that the lunch break does not take place at the beginning or end of the period in which the employees are at the plant, and should be compensable. The 7th Circuit found an exception to the regulation that defines “workday,” to allow for the exclusion of a bona fide lunch break from compensation, as there are identical considerations for time spent changing at the beginning and end of a meal break as at the beginning and end of a “workday.”

The 7th Circuit also cited to a U.S. Supreme Court case interpreting the FLSA, finding that compensability of time spent changing clothes or washing is a subject appropriately committed to collective bargaining. Under the collective bargaining agreement, the Plaintiffs’ union and the employer agreed that the changing of work gear was not work- time, and thus not compensable. The court provided an alternative reason, through the de minimis doctrine, to exclude plaintiff’s time spent changing work gear from compensation under the FLSA. Since the plaintiffs do not spend the vast majority of time during their lunch breaks changing, the entire period would not qualify as time spent changing clothes under the FLSA. The 7thCircuit, however, combined the de minimis doctrine with the collective bargaining agreement when it found that the consequence of dispensing with the intricate exercise of separating the minutes spent changing clothes from the minutes devoted to other activities is not to prevent compensation for the uncovered segments, but merely to leave the issue of compensation to the process of collective bargaining.

With respect to the Illinois Minimum Wage Law, the Court looked to an Illinois appellate decision that applied the de minimis doctrine to small amounts of time that workers took to change protective equipment at the beginning and end of their workday. The Court also looked to an Illinois regulation that states “an employee’s meal period . . . are compensable hours worked when such time is spent predominately for the benefit of the employer, rather than for the employee.” Although it was not argued, the Court reasoned that if changing clothes took a big chunk of time, leaving inadequate time for eating, the meal break would no longer be bona fide. Ultimately, the Court found that under Illinois law time spent changing clothes during a meal break was not compensable because (i) it was de minimis, and (ii) did not fulfill the predominance test in the regulation.