On January 27, the United States Supreme Court decided Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., which concerns the meaning of the phrase “changing clothes” in Section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). That section provides that employees are not compensated for “any time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday” if an applicable collective bargaining agreement excludes such time from working time.

The plaintiffs are Clifton Sandifer and other current and former employees of U.S. Steel’s Gary, Indiana plant. The collective bargaining agreement between the plaintiffs’ union and U.S. Steel provided that time spent changing clothes is not compensable. In their putative collective action, the plaintiffs alleged that 12 particular items that U.S. Steel requires them to wear at the plant are not “clothes” within the meaning of section 203(o), and that their time spent donning and doffing those items is compensable under the FLSA notwithstanding the collective bargaining agreement’s provision. The District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled against the plaintiffs, concluding that the items at issue constitute “clothes” under Section 203(o) and that U.S. Steel therefore need not compensate plaintiffs for any time spent donning and doffing them. On Monday, the Supreme Court affirmed in a unanimous decision.

In order to interpret Section 203(o), the Supreme Court looked to dictionaries from the time of the statute’s enactment. Based on those dictionaries, the Court defined “clothes” as “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.” The Court rejected both U.S. Steel’s attempt to define “clothes” more broadly to include an employee’s entire “work outfit” and the plaintiffs’ attempt to define “clothes” more narrowly to exclude items that serve a protective function. The Court defined “changing” as to “substitute” or to “alter,” also based on contemporaneous dictionaries. Applying the definitions of “changing” and “clothes” to the Sandifer case, the Court concluded that nine of the 12 items the plaintiffs had identified, such as jackets, pants, hoods, and gloves, are “clothes,” while three – glasses, earplugs, and respirators – are not, and that the plaintiffs’ donning and doffing the items at issue constituted “changing” them.

In determining whether the time devoted to donning and doffing the non-clothes items is compensable, the Supreme Court rejected the Seventh Circuit’s conclusion that the time spent donning and doffing those items was noncompensable because it was de minimis. Instead, the Supreme Court defined the relevant question as whether the period at issue can, on the whole, be fairly characterized as “time spent in changing clothes or washing.” If an employee devotes the vast majority of the time in question to donning and doffing equipment or other non-clothes items, then the entire period is not “time spent in changing clothes.” Conversely, if the vast majority of the time is spent donning and doffing “clothes,” then the entire period is “time spent in changing clothes.” In the Sandifer case, the Supreme Court upheld the lower courts’ conclusions that the time spent donning and doffing glasses, earplugs, and respirators was not compensable.

The Sandifer decision should be good news for employers, as it lends clarity to the questions of what constitutes “changing clothes” for purposes of the FLSA and what employee time is compensable.