Time spent by workers to put on and take off safety glasses, ear plugs and respirators is not paid time where the collective bargaining agreement covering the workers does not pay workers for time spent changing clothes, according to the Supreme Court.  Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp.No. 12-417, 571 U.S. ___, (2014).  At issue was whether time spent putting on protective gear fell within a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regarding time spent changing clothes at the beginning or end of a workday.  A unanimous Court ruled that while some of the protective items were not actually “clothes,” the majority of the time at issue was spent donning and doffing “clothes” and the time spent putting on and off other non-clothes items need not be subtracted as paid time. 

Workers Sought Backpay for Time Spent Putting On and Off Protective Gear 

A group of current and former employees at U.S. Steel Corporation’s steelmaking facilities filed a collective action under the FLSA seeking backpay for time spent putting on and taking off various pieces of protective gear.  The twelve items of gear included a flame-retardant jacket, pair of pants, a hood, a hardhat, a “snood” (like a balaclava), “wristlets,” work gloves, leggings, steel toed boots, safety glasses, earplugs and a respirator.  U.S. Steel required workers to wear these items to protect workers from hazards regularly found in its steel plants. The amount of backpay at stake was potentially very large given the amount of time spent to change into and out of these items by each worker every work day. 

Donning/Doffing Normally Compensable Unless Negotiated Away By Union 

Time spent by employees to put on and take off required work clothing is normally compensable time under the FLSA.  However, under FLSA §203(o), parties may collectively bargain over whether “time spent in changing clothes . . . at the beginning or end of each workday” must be compensated.  The collective bargaining agreement between U.S. Steel and the union representing the steel workers provided that time spent changing clothes was not paid time.  The issue then before the Supreme Court was the meaning of “changing clothes” and whether that phrase includes putting on and taking off protective gear.  The workers argued that donning and doffing protective gear does not qualify as “changing clothes.” 

Court’s Test: Whether The Vast Majority of Time Is Spent “Changing Clothes” 

The Court first looked at the meaning of “clothes” and relying on dictionary definitions, concluded that for purposes of §203(o), “clothes” means “covering for the person, wearing apparel, dress . . .” Although the workers claimed that items used to protect against workplace hazards are not included in the definition of “clothes,” the Court disagreed, finding no basis for omitting protective clothing from the definition of “clothes.”  

Next, the Court considered the meaning of “changing” as the workers argued that because items of protective gear where put on over the worker’s street clothes, they were not “changing clothes” which was required for the §203(o) exclusion to apply.  The Court disagreed.  It decided that “changing” can mean both substitution and alteration.  Consequently, time spent in altering dress must be included within the meaning of “changing clothes.” 

Finally, applying its interpretation of the meaning of “changing clothes” to the twelve articles of protective items at issue in this case, the Court found that the first nine items were designed and used to cover the body.  The Court found that the flame-retardant jacket, pair of pants, hood, hardhat, “snood,” “wristlets,” work gloves, leggings and steel toed boots clearly fit within the interpretation of “clothes” as articles of dress.  The three remaining items, the safety glasses, ear plugs and respirator, did not fall within that meaning.  The question then became whether the time spent putting on and taking off those three items must be deducted from the noncompensable time and be paid time. 

The Court held no, a deduction was not required for the minimal time spent donning and doffing these three safety items.  The Court rejected the de minimus doctrine that had been relied upon by the lower appellate court which says that “the law does not take account of trifles,” noting that the FLSA provision at issue in the case was “all about trifles.”  However, rather than making federal court judges into time-study professionals, the Court adopted a test that asks “whether the period at issue can, on the whole, be fairly characterized as ‘time spent in changing clothes . . .’” In cases where the vast majority of time in question is devoted to donning and doffing equipment or other non-clothes items, then the entire period would not qualify as “time spent in changing clothes” under §203(o).  However, where the vast majority of time is spent donning and doffing “clothes,” then the entire period of time qualifies as “time spent in changing clothes” and the time spent putting on and off other non-clothes items need not be subtracted.  The Court found that the latter was true in this case, meaning that the entire time spent donning and doffing protective gear by the steel workers was “time spent in changing clothes” under §203(o).  Therefore, because their collective bargaining agreement did not provide pay for time spent changing clothes, the workers were not entitled to backpay for the time spent putting on and taking off their protective gear.