Unanimous Supreme Court Upholds Union’s Right to Bargain Over Getting Dressed

In Sandifer v. US Steel, a group of unionized employees sued their employer looking to get paid for the time spent “donning” (putting on) and “doffing” (taking off) work clothes, including protective gear.  The collective bargaining agreement did not provide wages for this time.  

Time spent changing into and out of clothing that is necessary for the performance of work is generally required to be paid under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  Section 203(o) of the FLSA creates an exception to the general rule and allows a union to bargain about whether time spent changing clothes should be compensated (and at what rate). 

The employees in the case argued that since they were donning and doffing protective gear (work gloves, steel toed shoes, hard hats, etc.) the time should be compensated because what they were putting on and taking off was not “clothes.”  The Court disagreed by applying a broad definition of clothing and upheld the application of the Section 203(o) bargaining exemption. 

The Court also limited the de minimis defense many employers seek to apply to donning and doffing clothes.  Frequently, an employer will argue that such a small amount of time is spent putting on protective clothing that it should not have to be compensated.  The Court drew a distinction between activities (some of which may be de minimis) and time spent (which cannot be de minimis) and found the relevant question is whether the period of time, on the whole, can be fairly characterized as changing clothes or washing.  If it is washing, its compensable for all workers; if its changing clothes and you have a union, it is only compensable if the parties have agreed it will be paid.

By Caren Sencer | February 3, 2014

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