Recently, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago affirmed the district court’s decision that Wisconsin’s wage payment law requires employees to be paid for all time spent donning and doffing safety gear. More specifically, the Court held that nothing in a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) exempts labor and management from abiding by state laws of general application. Therefore, the CBA entered into by Kraft Foods and Local 538 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union was to be ignored to the extent it set lower wages or hours than Wisconsin state law specifies. (Spoerle, et al., v. Kraft Foods Global, Inc., No. 09-2691, (7th Cir. 2010)).

Kraft Foods requires employees at its Oscar Mayer meat products plant in Madison, Wisconsin to wear safety gear, such as steel-toed boots, hard hats, smocks and hair and beard nets to protect the food. It takes employees a few minutes at the beginning to put on and the end of the day to remove this safety equipment. Although the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requires employees to be paid for all time spent “donning and doffing” required safety gear, it also allows management and labor to vary this rule via a CBA. More specifically, Section 29 U.S.C. 203(o) provides that for the purpose of federal minimum wage and overtime requirements, the time spent changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday can be excluded from hours worked by the express written terms of the CBA applicable to the particular employees. In essence, Section 203(o) permits a trade-off; workers get more per hour in exchange for agreeing to exclude some time. Notwithstanding the CBA, the plaintiffs disagreed with the tradeoff and wanted all time included at the higher hourly rate that Local 538 had negotiated with Kraft Foods.

The employees presented two arguments that: (1) that the protective gear was not clothing under Section 203(o) which the Court quickly cited as a “loser” based on other another court decision and (2) Wisconsin’s own wage-and-hour law lacks an equivalent to Section 203(o). Although Kraft Foods conceded that Wisconsin state law requires that time spent donning and doffing safety gear be compensated at the minimum wage rate or higher and that this time counts for hours worked for overtime purposes, Kraft argued that Section 203(o) allows management and labor to agree differently and therefore the federal law preempts the state law.  

The Court found that Section 203(o) deals with federal requirements for hours worked and overtime and that states are free to set higher hourly wages or shorter periods before overtime becomes due. Further, noting that FLSA Section 218(a) provides that “No provision of this chapter . . . shall excuse noncompliance with any Federal or State law or municipal ordinance establishing a minimum wage higher than the minimum wage under this chapter or a maximum workweek lower than the maximum workweek established under this chapter . . .,” the Court stated that neither management nor labor “acting jointly through a CBA have any more power to override state substantive law than they would have acting individually.” As a result, the Court held that “Wisconsin requires that the collective bargaining agreement be ignored to the extent that it sets lower wages or hours that state law specifies.”