Sandifer v. United States Steel “Donning and Doffing” is not Compensable Work Time

In yet another opinion on what is compensable work time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the United States Supreme Court considered the issue of whether putting on and taking off – known as donning and doffing – protective clothing at the beginning and end of the work day is extra work time that requires extra pay in the case of Sandifer v. United States Steel, 134 S.Ct. 870 (2014).

Employees at United States Steel facilities in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan wear a variety of protective clothing and equipment while working in the plants, including: hard hats; safety glasses; ear plugs; respirators; metatarsal boots; and flame-retardant clothing. Pursuant to collective bargaining agreements, workers are not paid for the donning and doffing of their protective clothing and equipment. The exclusion of the time spent on getting into and out of protective clothing and equipment from time that would normally be compensable work time is permitted under the FLSA as long as it constitutes “changing clothes” within the meaning of Section 203(o) of the statute.

Clifton Sandifer and several hundred employees of United States Steel challenged the notion that changing into and out of many items of protective clothing and gear at the beginning and end of every work day constituted changing clothes within the meaning of the FLSA. They sued United States Steel for back pay for the time spent donning and doffing the protective clothing and gear. United States Steel moved to dismiss the case. The district court granted the motion and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed after the employees appealed the lower court’s decision. Both courts held that the donning and doffing of protective clothing constituted changing clothes within the meaning of the FLSA and, therefore, the time spent on the activity was not compensable.

Supreme Court Analysis

In a unanimous opinion, with all nine Justices in agreement, handed down by Justice Scalia on January 27, 2014, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In analyzing what constitutes “changing clothes” within the meaning of the FLSA, the Court distinguished between protective gear and equipment. Time spent donning and doffing protective gear, such as flame retardant clothing and metatarsal boots, is not compensable because it falls within the definition of changing clothes. However, the Court left open the possibility that putting on protective equipment such as respirators may fall outside of the FLSA definition and that the time related to donning and doffing these types of apparatus, therefore, may qualify as compensable work time.

The Supreme Court did not apply the de minimis doctrine to their analysis, however. Instead, the Court assessed the issue of whether time spent putting on and taking off protective equipment should be compensable by looking at whether the employee is required to give up a substantial amount of his time and effort. If a “vast majority” of the donning and doffing time is spent on non-clothes items, then it might be argued that the employee is not engaged in “changing clothes” within the meaning of FLSA Section 203(o) and that therefore the work time is compensable.

The Takeaways

Although the United States Supreme Court differentiated between donning and doffing protective clothing/gear and protective equipment, the court still held that in general, the time spent donning and doffing protective clothing and gear was not compensable work time. Later in 2014, the court issued another unanimous opinion in Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk (see our blog discussing this case), in which it held that the time employees spent undergoing security screening procedures at the end of every work day was not compensable work time because it was not integral and indispensable to an employee’s principal work responsibilities. In both of these cases, the United States Supreme Court noted that the issues presented were better suited to the bargaining table than the courtroom, meaning that if the employees wanted to get compensated for this time, then it should become a part of collective bargaining or other agreements rather than trying to impose an obligation through employment-related statutes. Both cases looked at what work time is compensable under the FLSA and both cases decided the question in an outcome favorable to employers.

At Nassiri Law Group, our employment law practice is devoted to helping provide employees with clarification about their state and federal rights. In the event that there are violations of these rights, we seek relief for employees who have suffered wage and hour violations, discrimination, wrongful termination, and retaliation. If you think that your rights have been violated, contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020 today.