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Sunday, June 16, 2024 | Back issues
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Steel Workers Lose High Court Overtime Battle

WASHINGTON (CN) - Steel workers are not entitled to overtime pay for time spent putting on protective work gear, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Clifton Sanders represents a class of 800 former and current hourly employees at a Gary, Ind., plant operated by U.S. Steel Corp.

Protective gear that employees like Sanders must wear at work include flame-retardant jackets, pants and hoods, as well as hardhats, work gloves, leggings, "metatarsal" boots, safety glasses, earplugs and a respirator.

The dispute hinges on whether the donning and doffing of protective gear qualifies as changing clothes under Subsection 203(o) of the Fair Labor Stand­ards Act, which allows par­ties to decide, as part of a collective-bargaining agreement, that "time spent in changing clothes ... at the beginning or end of each workday" is noncompensable.

Though U.S. Steel's collective bargaining agreement precludes payment for changing clothes and travel time, the class said that the federal law overrides that union agreement.

Both U.S. District Judge Robert Miller and the 7th Circuit sided with U.S. Steel as to the gear issue.

As the workers advanced a separate claim regarding travel time, they brought the gear question to the high court.

The ruling Monday quickly first notes that the word clothes "encompasses the entire outfit that one puts on to be ready for work."

This definition eschews a distinction between protective clothes and comfortable clothes, which Justice Antonin Scalia said "runs the risk of reducing §203(o) to near nothingness."

"The statutory compensation requirement to which §203(o) provides an exception embraces the changing of clothes only when that conduct constitutes 'an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed,'" the opinion states. "But protective gear is the only clothing that is integral and indispensable to the work of factory workers, butchers, longshoremen, and a host of other occupations. Petitioners' definition of 'clothes' would largely limit the application of §203(o) to what might be called workers' costumes, worn by such employees as waiters, doormen, and train conductors. Petitioners insist that their definition excludes only items with some specific work-hazard-related protective func­tion, but that limitation essentially abandons the asser­tion that clothes are for decency or comfort, leaving no basis whatever for the distinction." (Emphasis in original.)

Scalia sidelined the "fanciful hypotheticals" put forward by the workers, saying he felt little worry that generalizing the defi­nition of clothes "will cast a net so vast as to capture all manner of marginal things - from bandoliers to barrettes to bandages."

"The statutory context makes clear that the 'clothes' referred to are items that are integral to job performance; the donning and doffing of other items would create no claim to compensation under the act, and hence no need for the §203(o) exception," the opinion states. "Moreover, even with respect to items that can be regarded as integral to job performance, our definition does not embrace the view, adopted by some Courts of Appeals, that 'clothes' means essentially anything worn on the body - including accessories, tools, and so forth.

Scalia also declined the claim from the workers that they are not "changing" clothes when they put gear over their outfits.

"We think that despite the usual meaning of 'changing clothes,' the broader statutory context makes it plain that 'time spent in changing clothes' includes time spent in altering dress," he wrote.

As such, the "donning and doffing of the protective gear at issue qualifies as 'changing clothes' within the meaning of §203(o)," Scalia added.

Unlike the 7th Circuit, the Supreme Court declined to invoke the "doctrine de minimis non curat lex (the law does not take account of trifles)." (Parentheses in original.)

"A de minimis doctrine does not fit comfortably within the statute at issue here, which, it can fairly be said, is all about trifles - the rela­tively insignificant periods of time in which employees wash up and put on various items of clothing needed for their jobs," Scalia wrote. "Or to put it in the context of the present case, there is no more reason to disregard the minute or so necessary to put on glasses, earplugs, and respirators, than there is to regard the minute or so necessary to put on a snood. If the statute in question requires courts to select among trifles, de minimis non curat lex is not Latin for close enough for government work."

While the decision was mostly unanimous, Justice Sonia Sotomayor would not join a footnote describing precedent about the construction of FLSA exemptions.

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