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Supreme Court: Pay employees for certain ‘walking time’

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in Human Resources

Issue: Must you pay employees for time spent changing into protective gear and walking to (and from) their workstations?

Benefit/risk: The Supreme Court finally answered this long-running question, but the result will drive up labor costs for some employers.

Action: If your employees put on clothes or equipment at work, educate yourself and top brass about this new ruling.

In a defeat for employers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that employees must be paid for the time they spend at work changing into and out of protective clothing and safety gear, plus the time they spend walking between the changing room and their workstations.

The court's ruling says that, "because donning and doffing gear that is 'integral and indispensable' to employees' work is a principal activity ... the time (employees) spent walking to and from the production floor after donning and before doffing, as well as the time spent waiting" to remove the gear must be compensated.

The unanimous decision ends a debate that caused serious conflicts among the lower courts. Manufacturers complain this will increase their labor costs.

"On a per-worker basis, this additional compensation won't amount to a huge sum," says National Association of Manufacturers VP for Litigation Quentin Riegel. "But when you add it all up, week after week, various employers will face a significant new cost burden."

One victory for employers: The court said employers don't have to pay employees for time they spend waiting in line for clothing or safety gear when they first arrive at work. Such waiting time is a "preliminary activity" and isn't compensable. However, you still must pay employees for their time spent waiting to remove and turn in the gear.

The ruling involved two related cases, IBP Inc. v. Alvarez (03-1238) and Tum v. Barber Foods Inc. (04-66), in which poultry workers argued they should be paid for time spent putting on specialized outfits, boots, gloves and aprons, and the time spent walking to their workstations.

Outlook: Expect lower courts to now sort out what kinds of work clothes and equipment would trigger this new wage obligation.

Online resource: You can read the court's ruling at /opinions/05pdf/03-1238.pdf.

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