The U.S. Supreme Court handed employers a major victory on Jan. 27 when it ruled unanimously that workers need not be paid to change into and out of protective gear if a union contract has already specified that the time isn’t compensable.
The decision in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp. (No. 12–417, U.S. Supreme Court, 2014) marks a departure from past rulings in so-called “donning and doffing” cases. The key difference in Sandifer: The existence of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) addressing the issue.
In 2005, the Court ruled that the Fair Labor Standards Act () requires paying workers for the time they spend changing into and out of protective clothing and safety gear. Since then, numerous courts have held that such gearing up constitutes a “principal activity” of workers’ jobs, and is therefore compensable.
But what about simply changing clothes? And what if workers decide to buck union contract terms that specifically address donning and doffing?
In Sandifer, U.S. Steel employees working at a plant in Indiana filed a class-action lawsuit over those questions. U.S. Steel agreed that the employees regularly wear protective gear, including flame-retardant hoods, jackets and leggings. But since 1947, various iterations of the CBA have stipulated no pay for “any time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday.”
The employees argued that the FLSA entitles them to pay regardless of how the union contract reads. They also argued that their gear didn’t amount to the “clothes” referenced in the CBA.
The Supreme Court disagreed on both counts. The Justices all concluded that whatever the U.S. Steel workers were wearing, they were in fact clothes. As such, the terms of the CBA prevailed regardless of what the FLSA says.
Practical impact: Employers and unions are free to negotiate contracts that waive pay for donning and doffing. Nonunion workplaces are still bound by the FLSA requirements.