About Us  |  About Cheetah®  |  Contact Us

Unanimous High Court rules production workers’ donning and doffing time not compensable under CBA

By Lisa Milam-Perez, J.D.

The time spent by production workers donning and doffing their protective gear was not compensable, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled on Monday, affirming the Seventh Circuit and clarifying the scope and definition of “clothes” within the “changing clothes” exception found in Section 203(o) of the FLSA, which provides that donning and doffing activities may be exempt from compensable time under the express terms of, or custom or practice under, a bona fide collective bargaining agreement (Sandifer v U.S. Steel Corp, January 27, 2014, Scalia, A).

Applying the ordinary common meaning of the term “clothes” as defined in dictionaries from the era in which the statutory provision was enacted, the High Court reasoned there was no basis for interpreting the term in any other manner, such that the term would omit protective clothing.

Finding the de minimis doctrine employed by some circuits in such cases ill-suited to a statute that is itself “all about trifles,” the Court said the better approach is to determine whether the time in question could be characterized “on the whole” as time spent changing clothes — i.e., whether the vast majority of the employees’ time is spent donning and doffing “clothes” (as defined here) — in which case the entire period qualifies, and the time spent donning and doffing other items “need not be subtracted.”

The Justices were unanimous, save for Justice Sotomayor’s refusal to join a footnote addressing whether the Court’s previous assertion that FLSA “exemptions” are to be narrowly construed against employers applied to Sec. 203 in particular.