January 27, 2014

Supreme Court Decides Sandifer vs. U.S. Steel Corp.

On January 27, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Sandifer vs. U.S. Steel Corp., No. 12-417, holding that the time workers spend donning and doffing personal protective equipment is not compensable under Section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Workers at U.S. Steel facilities sued U.S. Steel seeking compensation for the time required for workers to put on personal protective equipment (PPE) and for the time to "travel" to their worksites. Depending on a worker's position, the PPE could include hard hats, ear plugs, respirators, safety glasses, work gloves, steel toed boots, "wrist slits," "snoods," and "leggings". Many of these items were put on before a worker would head to his/her work station. Pursuant to collective bargaining agreements dating back to 1947, workers were paid only for the eight-hour shift they worked at their work stations; time spent "donning and doffing" PPE and travel time between the locker room and the work stations was specifically excluded.

U.S Steel moved to dismiss, and the district court granted the motion in part, concluding that donning and doffing PPE was "time spent in changing clothes," "which could properly be made noncompensable under Section 203(o) of the [FLSA] if so dictated by a collective bargaining agreement." The district court allowed the workers' claim for travel time to proceed. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit determined that the entire case should have been dismissed at the district court level because it found that a majority of the PPE were "clothes" under Section 203(o). It rejected the district court's view that "clothes" includes anything that covers a part of the human body and also concluded that the time spent putting on "non-clothes" items was de minimus. As to travel time, the Seventh Circuit determined that a principal activity that is not compensable under Section 203(o) cannot commence or prolong the work day resulting in compensation for travel time.

Looking to the definition of "clothes" at the time Section 203(o) was enacted, the Supreme Court affirmed, noting that "the ‘clothes' referred to are items that are integral to job performance; the donning and doffing of other items would create no claim to compensation under the Act, and hence no need for the §203(o) exception." The Court rejected the worker's proposed definition excluding items with some specific work-hazard-related protective func­tion as potentially rendering Section 203(o) meaningless, and likewise rejected the company's "view that ‘clothes' encompasses the entire out­fit that one puts on to be ready for work" as "devoid of any textual foundation." The Court held that the term "clothes" means "items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress," leaving room for distinction between clothes and wearable items that are not clothes.

 With respect to the definition of "changing," the Court acknowledged that "changing" generally means "substituting," but observed that at the time of Section 203(o)'s enactment "changing" had two meanings: to "substitute" and to "alter." More practically, the Supreme Court stated that the purpose of Section 203(o) "is to permit collective bargaining over the compensability of clothes-changing time and to promote the predictability achieved through mutually beneficial negotiation." The Court therefore concluded that "changing clothes" includes both substituting one piece of clothing for another and otherwise altering one's dress.

Finally, the Supreme Court agreed that earplugs, safety glasses and respirators may not qualify as clothes under Section 203(o), but declined to look at the de minimus standard. According to the Court, that "doctrine does not fit comfortably within the statute at issue here" because "it is most unlikely Congress meant Section 203(o) to convert federal judges into time-study professionals." To avoid "a morass of difficult, fact -specific determinations," the Supreme Court found, "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 off other items need not be subtracted."

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, which was joined in its entirety by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan, and joined by Justice Sotomoyer except as to footnote 7.

Download the Opinion of the Court

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