Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., No. 12-417 (U.S. 2014)

The Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers and unions to negotiate whether employees are compensated for time spent changing clothes before and after shifts. At issue in this case was whether “clothing” can include also personal protective gear such as safety glasses, respirators, and ear plugs that are not traditionally considered clothing. The Supreme Court held that clothing does include personal protective equipment, and that employers and unions can fairly agree to exclude time “donning and doffing” these items from compensable time. Moreover, the Supreme Court also confirmed that if time spent changing clothing is excluded from compensable time, then time spent walking from the locker room to the employees workstation may also be excluded.

In the past, cases addressing “donning and doffing” policies had arrived at different results. Some courts, including the Seventh and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals, concluded that “clothing” included all personal protective equipment, and that time walking to and from locker rooms can be non-compensable. Other courts, including the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal, held that time spent changing clothing can be excluded, but time spent walking from the locker room to the workstation must be compensated. The Ninth Circuit ruled that personal protective gear could not be considered clothing, and that all time changing and walking to a workstation must be compensated. The Supreme Court, in adopting the Seventh Circuit view, resolved this split.

Employers seeking to change their compensation policies should be aware that this decision only applies where a valid collective bargaining agreement expressly excludes time spent changing clothes from compensable time. A non-union employer is not covered by the exception for collective bargaining agreements, and must generally compensate employees for time spent donning and doffing safety gear. As this area of the law is complex and can change rapidly, companies would be well served to consult an experienced labor and employment attorney before making significant changes to their policies.