Supreme Court Rules Union Agreement Can Exclude Time Spent “Changing Clothes”

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employer did not have to pay employees for time spent donning and doffing personal protective equipment where its collective bargaining agreement excluded time spent “changing clothes” from paid time. Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp. (U.S. 2014).

Over 800 employees sued U.S. Steel for overtime pay for time they spent putting on and taking off personal protective equipment before and after work. U.S. Steel argued that this time did not have to be paid because it qualified as “changing clothes,” which the company’s collective bargaining agreement excluded from paid time. Section 203(o) of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act allows collective bargaining agreements to exclude time spent changing clothes from paid time.

The employees argued that personal protective equipment should not be considered “clothes” under 203(o). The Court disagreed. The Court defined “clothes” as “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.” The Court found the nine out of 12 items commonly worn by employees were “clothes” including: a flame-retardant jacket, pair of pants, and hood; a hardhat; a snood (a hood that also covers the neck and upper shoulder area); wristlets; work gloves; leggings; and metatarsal boots. The Court did not consider the other three items—safety glasses, earplugs, and respirators—to be clothes. Even so, the Court held that U.S. Steel did not have to pay employees for time spent donning and doffing these items because the “vast majority” of the disputed time was spent changing “clothes.” 

Keep in mind that this case applies to unionized employers with collective bargaining agreements that fit this FLSA exception. For non-unionized employers, whether time spent donning and doffing personal protective equipment must be paid is determined by analyzing if this time is integral and indispensable to employees’ principal work activities. If your organization has employees who wear personal protective equipment for work, you should analyze the facts of your situation and decide whether to pay employees for this time. Contact one of our attorneys if you would like assistance with this analysis.