I have posted a few times about Fair Labor Standards Act donning and doffing cases. The general rule is that donning and doffing is compensable if these preliminary and postliminary activities are integral to the performance of the employee’s primary job.

For a rule, there is always an exception. In a case entitled Johnson v. Koch Foods Inc., filed in the Eastern District of Tennessee, a federal judge has ruled that because the parties’ labor contract applicable to covering chicken processors working at a cut and kill plant explicitly excluded compensation for time spent donning and doffing certain sanitary and safety gear, the workers were not entitled to compensation for the time it took to put and remove the gear.

The judge analogized the putting on/taking off of the gear to “changing clothes,” which is not compensable under Section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The court did warn, however, that of a jury determined that such activities were integral and indispensable, they then could be compensable under the “continuous workday rule.”

This result seems anomalous because the workers were required to put on the protective gear prior to reporting to the production line, to begin their primary work, but they were only compensated for the time actually on the line.

There is a divergence in the federal Circuits as to what constitutes “clothes.” The Ninth Circuit has held that the “changing clothes” safe harbor applies only when the items at issue are clearly and unmistakably clothing, as is commonly understood. However, the Eleventh Circuit has held that the term applies to hairnets, gloves and hearing protection equipment. The US Department of Labor has issued an Opinion Letter concluding that the Section 203(o) definition of clothes “includes items worn on the body for covering, protection, or sanitation.”

This issue may ultimately have to be decided by the US Supreme Court. In the meantime, employers need to make assessments of the indispensability of the preliminary activity to the main job and start the analysis of compensability from that vantage point.