The U.S. Supreme Court handed a victory to unionized employers on Monday by holding that time union workers spend putting on and taking off protective gear before and after their shifts was noncompensable by virtue of the workers' collective bargaining agreement.  Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., No. 12-417 (U.S. Jan. 27, 2014).

The Fair Labor Standards Act generally requires employers to pay at least the minimum wage for all hours worked and an overtime rate for all hours worked over 40 in a week.  Section 203(o) of the FLSA allows employers and unions to agree that "time spent in changing clothes" be excluded from compensable work time.  The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Scalia, ruled that "changing clothes" included protective gear like hard hats and flame retardant jackets but generally did not include equipment or non-clothing items like safety glasses and respirators. 

Hundreds of current and former workers at U.S. Steel's Gary, Indiana plant joined a collective action lawsuit alleging they should be paid for "donning and doffing" certain protective gear.  U.S. Steel required the workers to wear this gear because of hazards regularly encountered in steel plants.  The 12 items of gear at issue were: a flame-retardant jacket, hood, and a pair of pants; work gloves; wristlets; hard hats; leggings; metatarsal (steel-toed) boots; a protective covering for the head, neck, and shoulders called a "snood"; safety glasses; earplugs; and a respirator. 

According to the Court, donning and doffing this gear would normally be compensable under the FLSA because the gear is integral and indispensable to performing these steel worker jobs.  But the collective bargaining agreement stated the activities were noncompensable.  The workers argued that Section 203(o) could not make the donning and doffing noncompensable because the protective gear did not constitute "clothes."  The Supreme Court disagreed, adopting an ordinary meaning for "clothes": "items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress." The Court reasoned that a protective element did not remove the gear from the category of clothing because many clothes have some protective qualities.  In fact, the Court equated much of the protective gear at issue to everyday clothing: a "hardhat is simply a type of hat" and "wristlets are essentially detached shirt sleeves." 

The Court distinguished protective clothing from "wearable items that are not clothes, such as some equipment and devices."  In this case, such non-clothing items included the safety glasses, earplugs, and respirators because they are not "commonly regarded as articles of dress."  However, the Court still ruled that donning and doffing this gear was noncompensable because the majority of the time was spent changing into and out of the protective clothing.  The Court propounded a holistic approach to analyzing the compensability of time that includes changing clothes and non-clothing items: "if the vast majority of the time is spent in donning and doffing 'clothes' as we have defined that term, the entire period qualifies, and the time spent putting on and taking off other items need not be subtracted." 

The Court's opinion is clearly intended to provide guidance for lower courts to apply some of the broad principles outlined in the decision to other scenarios.  For example, the Court carefully noted that its construction of "clothes" did not exclude all objects that could conceivably be characterized as equipment, but failed to provide further guidance on what equipment could be considered clothing.  The Court also signaled that "clothes" should be broadly construed under Section 203(o).  The Court stated in a footnote (the only part of the opinion that Justice Sotomayor did not join) that the "exemptions" to the FLSA must be narrowly construed against the employer asserting them, but this narrow construction principle did not apply to the definition of "clothes."    

The Court's opinion is certainly a victory for employers in industrial, union environments.  Employers with union workforces should consider addressing the compensability of changing protective clothing in labor negotiations with an eye toward the guidance in Sandifer v. U.S. Steel.  Employers with workers who must wear multiple articles of safety gear to perform their jobs should also take note of the decision and pay attention to its treatment by lower courts.  Courts will no doubt struggle with applying the Supreme Court's guidance to protective gear that falls within the gray area between clothes and wearable equipment.  And plaintiffs' attorneys handling non-union lawsuits may try to use this decision to argue that donning and doffing some protective gear, in conjunction with typical items like hard hats, glasses, and steel-toed boots, is compensable in non-union settings.