Unanimous Supreme Court Sides with U.S. Steel in Donning Case
The justices agreed with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that protective gear is not distinct from “work clothes.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Jan. 27 in Sandifer, et al. v. U.S. Steel Corp., No. 12-417, that U.S. Steel is not required to pay workers for the time spend donning and doffing protective equipment and then traveling to and from their workstations. "We hold that petitioners' donning and doffing of the protective gear at issue qualifies as 'changing clothes' within the meaning of [the provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows parties to collectively bargain over whether donning and doffing time must be compensated]," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the unanimous court.
The case hinged on the definition of "clothes" and whether it encompasses 12 specific items of protective gear, including a flame-retardant jacket, hard hat, safety glasses, ear plugs, and a respirator. 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 court's opinion agrees with the original trial court and the 7th Circuit that employees spend only minimal time donning and doffing safety glasses and ear plugs and that respirators are worn as needed at job locations, which makes the time spent donning and doffing them part of an employee’s normal work day.