U.S. Supreme Court Accepts Donning & Doffing Case

The case involves time spent by U.S. Steel workers to put on and later take off protective clothing, hard hats, ear plugs, boots, and hoods and also traveling from locker rooms to their workstations.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 19 agreed to hear Sandifer, et al. v. U.S. Steel Corp., No. 12-417, a case testing whether workers must be paid for time they spend donning and doffing protective equipment and then traveling to and from their workstations.

Lyle Denniston reported on www.scotusblog.com that the case is expected to be argued during the next term of the court, which begins in October 2013. The case involves name plaintiff Clifton Sandifer and several other U.S. Steel employees working at mills in Michigan and Illinois; it arose primarily from the company’s Gary Works. U.S. Steel won the case before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in May 2012, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The workers' union had agreed with U.S. Steel that time spent "changing clothes" would not be considered part of "the hours for which an employee is employed" -- language taken from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which in section 203(o) allows an employer and a union to agree that time spent "changing clothes' will not be included. The plaintiffs here contend changing into PPE is "a principal activity" they are employed to perform, and thus it triggers the start of the work day under FLSA.

To win their case, the workers will have to convince a majority of Supreme Court justices that protective gear is distinct from "work clothes," an argument the 7th Circuit explicitly rejected.

"Protection – against sun, cold, wind, blisters, stains, insect bites, and being spotted by animals that one is hunting – is a common function of clothing, and an especially common funding of work clothes worn by factory workers. It would be absurd to exclude all work clothes that have a protective function from 203(o), and thus limit the exclusion largely to actors' costumes and waiters' and doormen's uniforms," the appeals court held.

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