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Supreme Court Clarifies Meaning of “Changing Clothes” Under the FLSA – Is Your Workplace Affected?

By Ashley Kaplan, Esq. on 5/15/2014
Changing Clothes FLSA 

In a unanimous ruling in early January 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the meaning of “changing clothes” under a unionized worker provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The high court determined that employers are not required to pay unionized workers for the time spent “donning and doffing” protective clothing if it’s specifically negotiated in a collective bargaining agreement.

Some background:

In Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., workers were seeking backpay for time spent donning and doffing (or put more simply, “putting on” and “taking off”) various pieces of protective gear required at the Gary, Indiana steel plant. Because the Supreme Court held that the donning and doffing of protective gear, such as hard hats and flame-retardant jackets, qualified as “changing clothes” under Section 203(o) of the FLSA, the activity was not compensable under the company’s collective bargaining agreement. As a result of this ruling, the 800 former and current steelworkers lost the class action overtime lawsuit.

This is an important development for unionized workplaces that have uniform or other dress requirements. While the court’s decision does not relieve covered employers from paying for donning and doffing time at the beginning or end of a workday, it does allow them to freely negotiate this time. Now, even unique protective gear that meets the Supreme Court’s broader definition of clothes can be excluded from paid time in a collective bargaining agreement. As a best practice, unionized employers should revisit the language in any collective bargaining agreements to ensure the matter of compensable time with “changing clothes” is properly addressed.

Integral and Indispensable

To be clear, the Supreme Court’s decision does not affect non-unionized workplaces, nor does it change the FLSA’s rules for unionized workplaces without a collective bargaining agreement. For employers not impacted by the decision, the FLSA generally requires employees be paid for time spent changing into or out of clothing if it’s “integral and indispensable” to their work.

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