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Fair Labor Standards Act v. Collective Bargaining Agreements

Are employees of the United States compensated for the time they don and doff? What is the true definition of "clothes?" This was all addressed when the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Sandifer, et al. v. U.S. Steel Corp. in November 2013.

Sandifer filed a class complaint in the U.S. District for the Northern District of Indiana against the United State Steel Corporation on behalf of former and current hourly workers. The complaint alleged that U.S. Steel violated the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") by failing to pay their employees for the time they spent donning and doffing their work clothes (including protective safety items, goggles, hard hats, flame retardant clothes, boots, ear plugs, etc.), and walking to and from their work stations. The Collective Bargaining Act ("CBA"); however, between U.S. Steel and the worker-employee-plaintiffs, does not require compensation for such. Sandifer argued that the FLSA does require compensation for those activities and that the FLSA overrides any CBS intact.

The court, using Section 203(o) of the FLSA as guidance, dismissed the allegation that "changing clothes require compensation." However, the court refused to rule on compensation for travel time. U.S. Steel filed an interlocutory appeal and Sandifer cross appealed. The Seventh Circuit dismissed the cross-appeal and ruled that Sandifer had no merit on his case and dismissed the case altogether. Sandifer petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court.

Eric Schnapper, of the University Of Washington School Of Law in Seattle, argued that under the FLSA, the time workers spend putting on attire that may look like regular clothes but is worn for protection is compensable. Schnapper stressed that if workers are not compensated for such, that they would be stripped of their statutory rights. On the contrary, Lawrence DiNardo of Jones Day in Chicago and the assistant to the Solicitor General of Washington, Anthony A. Yang, argued that employers are relieved from the obligation to pay for "changing time."

The question of what items constitute clothes and where that definition line can be drawn is a complicated one. Donning and doffing questions have plagued the courts for years. A ruling from the Supreme Court is expected in 2014.


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