Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Supreme Court tackles what it means to "change clothes"

The Supreme Court has unanimously rejected a claim that people working for United States Steel are entitled to compensation for the time spent dressing for work. The question boils down to the meaning of the phrase "changing clothes" under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The case is Sandifer v. United Steel Corp., decided on January 27. The employees wear substantial protective gear, including flame-retardant jackets, special boots and a respirator. They remove this clothing at the end of the workday. "Donning and doffing" clothing is compensable under the FLSA, that is, you get paid for it like any other work activity. In this case, though, management says the union contract makes this activity noncompensable. You can do this under a contract, waive compensation for "time spent in changing clothes ... at the beginning or end of each workday." So the question is whether the employees are really "changing clothes." If they are, then the contract validly waives their compensation for this activity.

Justice Scalia writes the decision. He gives us a history of portions of FLSA that cover compensation for changing and washing clothes, even quoting from a New York Times article from 1946. Through it all, "the statute provides that the compensability of time spent changing clothes or washing is a subject appropriately committed to collective bargaining."

All the equipment and stuff that employees put on at the start of their workday: is it clothing? Some of it does not sound like clothing, but equipment. But clothing is not simply for decency or comfort, the Court says. "We see no basis for the proposition that the unmodified term 'clothes' somehow omits protective clothing." And the Court cannot allow the plaintiffs' interpretation swallow the rule. Some workers have to wear "what might be called workers' costumes," like doormen, train conductors and waiters. And in 1947, the Labor Department said that "changing clothes" applies to someone working in a chemical plant, who wears protective clothing. The employees are also "changing." Plaintiffs say changing means substitution. This is a clever argument, but the Supreme Court does not like clever. You don't change clothes when you put on an overcoat, right?

The workers do wear a few things that are probably not clothing, the Court says, like glasses and earplugs. But these exceptions are minor. Justice Scalia says the law does not like trifles. The Court will not parse out these trifles. Congress did not want federal judges to be "time-study professionals." Rather, "the question for courts is whether the period at issue can, on the whole, be fairly characterized as 'time spent in changing clothes or washing. ... If the vast majority of the time is spent in donning and doffing 'clothes' as we have defined that term, the entire period qualifies, and the time spent putting on and off other items need not be subtracted."

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