In Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, No. 12-417 (S.Ct. 2014), the Supreme Court faced the question of the meaning of the phrase “changing clothes” as it appears in the Fair Labor Standards Act (the “FLSA”). The plaintiffs were seeking backpay for time spent donning and doffing various pieces of protective gear, which the employer required them to wear because of hazards regularly encountered in their work at a steel plant. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant, United States Steel Corporation. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld this judgment, and the plaintiffs appeal.
In analyzing the case, the Supreme Court said that, in 1949, Congress amended the FLSA to provide that the compensability of time spent changing clothes or washing is a subject appropriately committed to collective bargaining (a “CBA”). Here, under the applicable CBA, changing clothes is not compensable time. But does the donning and doffing of protective gear qualify as “changing clothes”? The Supreme Court answered this by saying that “clothes” encompasses the entire outfit that one puts on to be ready for work-including the protective gear. As to “changing”, the Supreme Court said that any alteration of dress will constitute a change. As such, the Court held that the plaintiff’s donning and doffing of the protective gear at issue qualifies as “changing clothes”, which is not compensable under the applicable CBA. Therefore, the Court affirmed the lower courts’ rulings.