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Supremes weigh: Pay just to change clothes?

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

The U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 4 heard oral arguments in the first of several employment law cases to be considered in the 2013-2014 term, this one hinging on the question: What does it mean to change clothes?  

For an hour, the Justices peppered attorneys for both sides in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp. with questions about the definitions of “change” and “clothes.” Based on the queries, the plaintiffs’ arguments seemed a little threadbare.

Court watchers are predicting a win for U.S. Steel, since most Justices seemed to believe the terms are not particularly difficult to understand.

In 2005, the Court ruled that workers must be paid for the time they spend changing into and out of protective clothing and safety gear, such as helmets, smocks, aprons, gloves and so forth. Since then, numerous courts have held that “donning and doffing” protective apparel 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 the company’s plant in Gary, Ind., filed a class-action lawsuit over those questions.

There’s no doubt that the employees regularly wear protective gear, including respirators and flame-retardant hoods, jackets and leggings. Often they go on over regular street clothes, but sometimes the employees change into other work outfits and then put on the specialized protective gear.

But dating back to 1947, various iterations of the union contract have specifically excluded from compensable working time “any time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday.”

The employees argue that the Fair Labor Standards Act entitles them to compensation regardless of how the union contract reads.

In oral arguments at least, the Justices seemed skeptical.

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