Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp.

Decision: The US Supreme Court unanimously clarified the rules for “donning and doffing” claims in unionized workplaces under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). At issue in the case was FLSA Section 203(o), which exempts employers from having to compensate employees for off-the-clock time spent changing clothes at the beginning or end of each workday, if a collective bargaining agreement so provides.

In Sandifer, the plaintiffs alleged that the time they spent changing into and out of safety equipment, including fire-retardant jackets and pants, steel-toed boots, goggles, ear plugs, hard hats, and a flame-retardant head cover and wristlet, was compensable under Section 203(o), despite the existence of a collective bargaining agreement that provided that such time was not compensable, because that equipment did not constitute “clothes” under the FLSA. The district court held that the time was not compensable, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court largely agreed with the district court and Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in finding that most of the equipment at issue was “clothing” under Section 203(o) and that the remainder of the employees’ time spent donning equipment rather than clothing was de minimis, so the time was not compensable. The Supreme Court held that “clothes” for FLSA purposes means “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.” It further held that “changing,” for FLSA purposes, includes all time spent altering dress, whether or not protective clothes are a substitute for or supplemental to a worker’s ordinary dress. Under these definitions, according to the Court, all items worn by the petitioners constituted “clothes,” except safety glasses, ear plugs and respirators, but, when the vast majority of time is spent donning and doffing clothes, the entire period qualifies as time spent “changing clothes.”

Impact: The Court’s decision provides unionized employers with guidance about how to categorize donning and doffing time under the FLSA. If a piece of work-related equipment is akin to a piece of clothing, it is likely to be regarded as “clothes” under the statute. Similarly, if employees spend the “vast majority” of time before- and after-work donning and doffing these clothing items, employers should be able to rely on their current collective bargaining agreements that exempt the time from being compensable.