Authored by Jessica Schauer Lieberman

The Supreme Court ruled today that steelworkers are not entitled to pay for time spent changing into flame-retardant suits, hardhats, gloves, and other protective items where their union agreed to exclude that time from the compensable workday.  In doing so, the Court took a refreshingly pragmatic approach to an area that previously has been interpreted in a legalistic way and that the Court itself characterized as “all about trifles.”

As readers of this Blog are aware, Sandifer  v. U.S. Steel turned on whether the gear worn by the plaintiffs constituted “clothing” for purposes of § 203(o).  That provision allows employers to exclude time spent by their employees “changing clothes . . . at the beginning or end of each workday” from compensable time pursuant to the terms of or a custom or practice under a collective bargaining agreement. 

The decision authored by Justice Scalia declares that the term “clothes” should be given its ordinary meaning – “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.”  The Court roundly rejected the plaintiffs’ interpretation, which would have excluded items with a “protective” function, saying that it “runs the risk of reducing § 203(o) to near nothingness” because in many industries the vast majority of required gear is protective in nature.  The Court also held that “changing” clothes can encompass both “substituting” and “altering” one’s outfit, so that taking off street clothes before putting on required items is not necessary in order to fall within the scope of § 203(o).

Applying these definitions, the Court found that most of the plaintiffs’ gear constituted clothes, but that glasses, earplugs and respirators did not fall within the definition because they are not “commonly regarded as articles of dress.”  The decision then went on to state that courts should look at the time period at issue “as a whole” in determining application of §203(o), and because the “vast majority” of the time at issue was spent changing items that fell within the definition of “clothes,” the entire period could be excluded from the compensable workday.

The Court appeared to be highly concerned with administribility of §203(o) – and, indeed, the FLSA as a whole.  Justice Scalia warned that the statue should not “convert federal judges into time-study professionals,” and that its application should not depend on “happenstances and vagaries.”  The opinion also detailed the explosion of litigation over the definition of work that preceded the addition of § 203(o) to the FLSA.  The Court clearly intended to articulate broad, overarching principles to guide lower courts in deciding issues under this provision, and (in the one footnote that Justice Sotomayor did not join) the opinion reiterated that “the narrow-construction principle” that applies to exemptions under the FLSA is inapplicable to the “Definitions” contained in § 203.