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Supreme Court Puts to Rest the Meaning of “Changing Clothes”


February 6, 2014

In Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., the Supreme Court held that time spent donning and doffing workplace gear by a class of U.S. Steel unionized employees was not compensable under the terms of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement.

Sandifer and others filed a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), seeking backpay for time spent donning and doffing required protective gear.  U.S. Steel argued that this activity, which would otherwise be compensable under the FLSA, was non-compensable pursuant to a collective bargaining provision that time spent changing in and out of “clothes” was non-compensable.  

The Court held that “clothes” denotes “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.”  Further, time spent “changing clothes” includes time spent altering dress.  The Court ruled that gear, including a flame-retardant jacket, pants, and gloves constituted clothes as they are designed and used to cover the body, while glasses, earplugs, and respirators failed to qualify.  When changing clothes and non-clothes are involved, the Court directed that the inquiry should be whether, “on the whole,” the activity is fairly characterized as time spent “changing clothes.”  If so, then the entire period is governed by the collective bargaining arrangement.

Sandifer is a substantial victory for unionized employers who have either expressly negotiated for or established a practice of not compensating for donning and doffing time.  For those employers not impacted by the decision, the traditional FLSA rule applies – donning and doffing is compensable if it is “integral and indispensable” to a principal work activity.