U.S. Supreme Court Rules that Under Federal Law, Workers’ Time Spent Putting On and Taking Off Protective Clothing is Not Compensable if Excluded Under a Collective Bargaining Agreement

On January 27, 2014, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that under Federal Law, U.S. Steel is not required to pay its workers for time spent putting on and taking off (“donning and doffing”) protective clothing necessary for their work. Specifically at issue in the case was Section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Section 203(o) allows parties to collectively bargain over whether the time spent changing clothes at the beginning and the end of the workday is compensable. The collective bargaining agreement in the U.S. Steel case had such a clause excluding this time from compensation, and the Court was charged with determining whether donning and doffing protective clothing was included in this exclusion.

The workers argued that any specialized protective clothing that provided protection against workplace hazards should not fit under the definition of “clothes” as described in Section 203(o) of the FLSA. The employer, U.S. Steel, argued that anything worn on the body should fall under the definition. Justice Scalia delivered the opinion for the Court, and he looked at traditional definitions of the word “clothing” that were utilized at the time of Section 203(o)’s enactment to determine whether protective clothing was included. “Dictionaries from the era of §203(o)’s enactment indicate that ‘clothes’ denotes items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress… That is what we hold to be the meaning of the word as used in §203(o).” Under that definition, the Court went on to hold that the protective clothing at issue in that case fell under the definition of “clothing” as described in Section 203(o) of the FLSA.

The Court held that items such as a flame-retardant jacket, a pair of pants and hood, a hardhat, a snood, wristlets, work gloves, leggings, and metatarsal boots are the kind of protective clothing included in this definition, and a worker’s putting on and taking off these items does not have to be compensated if excluded under a collective bargaining agreement. However, the Court held that the definition of “clothing” at issue in that case does not necessarily apply to anything worn on the body at work. Items such as safety glasses, earplugs, and a respirator do not fit under this definition because they are not commonly referred to as items of dress. The standard as articulated by the Supreme Court, unfortunately, is far from clear.

Also, it is important to note that this decision interprets only the federal wage and hour law regarding compensable time exclusions under collective bargaining agreements. Most states have their own wage and hour laws that can apply in addition to the FLSA and can add regulations on top of and in addition to federal requirements. Although time spent putting on and taking off protective clothing, if excluded under a collective bargaining agreement, may not be compensable under federal law, an applicable state wage and hour law may not allow for the same exclusion.

The take away from this case is that while the Court broadly construed what constitutes “clothing” under Section 203(o) of the FLSA, the standard it articulated is far from clear. If a collective bargaining agreement indicates that time spent donning and doffing clothing is not compensable, that clause will apply to a wide variety of items that an employee may have to wear at work, including most protective clothing. However, there are certain items that, under federal law, do not fit under this definition. Further, most states have laws comparable to the FLSA that may treat the situation differently and add additional requirements.

Contact: Shawn Romer

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