BREAKING! U.S. Supreme Court Rules on “Changing Clothes” Case

supreme courtBy:  TIMOTHY C. HAUGHEE

JANUARY 28, 2014

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion regarding the interpretation of the phrase “changing clothes” contained in the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  The High Court held that the donning and doffing of protective gear by employees at a worksite constitutes “changing clothes” under the FLSA such that the compensability for the time spent changing clothes could be subject to negotiation under a collective bargaining agreement.

In the case, the plaintiffs filed a putative collective action (similar to a class action) case under the FLSA against their employer, United States Steel Corporation, seeking backpay for time spent by the employees donning and doffing items of protective gear that U.S. Steel required them to wear because of hazardous conditions at its steel plants.  Specifically, the employees alleged that they were required to wear 12 kinds of protective gear at the worksite.  While the time spent donning and doffing such protective gear is generally compensable under the FLSA, U.S. Steel argued that a separate subsection of the FLSA, which allows the parties to a collective bargaining agreement to decide that “time spent in changing clothes . . . at the beginning or end of each workday” is non-compensable, governed in this particular case.

Accordingly, the issue before the Court was whether or not donning and doffing protective gear at the beginning or end of a workday constitutes “changing clothes” under the FLSA.  Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Court, analyzed the phrase “changing clothes” and concluded that the plaintiffs’ donning and doffing of nine of the 12 items of protective gear (including flame-retardant jackets, work gloves, and leggings) constituted “changing clothes.”  As for the remaining 3 items of protective gear – hardhats, glasses, and earplugs – the Court admitted that such items were not “clothes,” but ultimately concluded that the time spent donning and doffing them was “de minimus” and therefore non-compensable.

Consequently, employers can now generally rest assured that time spent at the beginning and end of each workday donning and doffing protective gear that qualifies as “clothes” under the FLSA is not compensable as a matter of law and is subject to negotiation under a collective bargaining agreement.

A link to the Court’s opinion can be found here.

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