In Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, employees of a meat-processing facility in Iowa sued Tyson for unpaid overtime compensation related to time spent putting on and taking off (i.e. “donning and doffing”) protective equipment. Under Tyson’s compensation model, wages were based on the time the employees spent at their work stations while the production line was moving. Time spent “donning and doffing” away from the production line, however, was unaccounted for and unpaid. The district court certified, and the Eight Circuit affirmed, the entire class under Federal Rule 23 and as a collective action under the FLSA. Damages for the class were calculated by adding the average “donning and doffing” time observed from a sample of employees to the timesheets of every employee in the Iowa facility.
Tyson argued that class certification was improper because the “donning and doffing” time for each employee varied greatly depending on an individual’s role on the production line – some employees had no “donning and doffing” requirements because they simply wore rubber gloves (which took seconds to don and doff) while others were required to wear more extensive protective equipment. Because of these individualized issues surrounding damages, Tyson maintained that class certification was improper, especially when hundreds of employees suffered no actual injury.
The district court and Eighth Circuit disagreed and said that certification was proper because Tyson applied a uniform payment policy to all of its employees. Most notably, the Court of Appeal found that the sampling method was permissible because Tyson was unable to present evidence of the actual time each employee spent donning, doffing, and walking to the production line. Without such records, the Court of Appeal found it was proper for the court to make a “just and reasonable inference” was to what might be owed from the sample average.
In less than a month, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument on this class certification issue. If the Supreme Court affirms the Tyson class, it will potentially be easier for plaintiffs to reach class certification based on statistical samples. Employers using a general compensation model may need to reassess whether the benefit of a uniform compensation policy outweighs the risk of class action certification.