U.S. Supreme Court Holds U.S. Steel Workers’ Don/Doff Time Not Compensable

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In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court held that the time spent by U.S. Steel employees “donning and doffing” protective gear was not compensable because they were “changing clothes” under Section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., 571 U.S. __ (2014) (slip opinion available here). The Court affirmed a Seventh Circuit decision which held that FLSA Section 203(o) allowed U.S. Steel to withhold pay for the time spent changing clothes under a collective-bargaining agreement with the United Steelworkers. See 678 F.3d 590 (7th Cir. 2012).

Donning-and-doffing time is typically compensable under the FLSA; however, Section 203(o) allows parties to bargain collectively over whether “time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday” must be compensated. The employees argued that the definition of “clothes” under Section 203(o) excludes any items designed and used to protect against workplace hazards, while the company argued that the definition includes anything worn on the body. In keeping with Justice Scalia’s originalist approach to statutory construction, the high court rejected both parties’ definitions and instead drew upon dictionaries from the era of Section 203(o)’s enactment, defining the term “clothes” as: “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.” Slip op. at 6. Drawing upon the same contemporaneous sources, the Court defined the term “changing clothes” to mean to “substitute” or “alter” one’s dress. Id. at 10.

Applying these definitions, the Court found that the employees’ donning and doffing of certain protective gear fell within the scope of Section 203(o). The Court found that nine items of protective gear at issue fell within the definition of “clothes” and that three items (workers’ glasses, earplugs, and respirators) did not. However, because the “vast majority” of the disputed time was spent donning and doffing the nine items that qualified as “clothes,” the Court ruled that the time workers spent donning and doffing the other three items need not be compensated. Slip op. at 14-15. The opinion instructs lower courts to consider “on the whole” the time spent by workers putting on and taking off clothes versus non-clothes items to determine whether or not that time is non-compensable under Section 203(o). Id. at 14.