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Supreme Court Sides with U.S. Steel in PPE Case

Jan. 28, 2014
The unanimous decision, issued Jan. 27, affirms the decisions of two lower courts, and saves U.S. Steel from having to cut a large check to steelworkers for backpay.

In a case that had the nation’s preeminent legal body analyzing the definition of “changing clothes,” the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that U.S. Steel Corp. does not have to compensate workers for the time they’ve spent putting on and taking off hardhats, gloves, flame-retardant suits and other protective gear.

The unanimous decision, issued Jan. 27, affirms the decisions of two lower courts, and saves U.S. Steel from having to cut what likely would have been a large check for backpay.

Through a collective bargaining agreement, U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers union have determined that workers are not to be compensated for time spent changing clothes – an arrangement that the Fair Labor Standards Act has allowed since the act was amended in 1949. The steelworkers, however, argued that the donning and doffing of protective gear does not meet the Fair Labor Standards Act’s definition of “changing clothes.” The Supreme Court did not agree.

In an opinion authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court explains that dictionary definitions of “clothes” from the late 1940s denote “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.”

“Nothing in [the Fair Labor Standards Act’s] text or context suggests anything other than this ordinary meaning,” Scalia wrote. “There is no basis for [the steelworkers’] proposition that the unmodified term ‘clothes’ somehow omits protective clothing.”

In a blog post, Jessica Schauer Lieberman of the labor and employment law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP praises the Supreme Court for taking “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.’”

“The court roundly rejected the plaintiffs’ interpretation [of ‘clothes’], which would have excluded items with a ‘protective’ function, saying that it ‘runs the risk of reducing [the Fair Labor Standards Act] to near nothingness’ because in many industries the vast majority of required gear is protective in nature,” Lieberman wrote. “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 [the Fair Labor Standards Act].”

Although the Supreme Court concluded that safety glasses, earplugs and respirators do not meet its definition of “clothes,” it asserted that the key question is “whether the period at issue can, on the whole, be fairly characterized as ‘time spent in changing clothes or washing.’”

“If an employee devotes the vast majority of the time in question to putting on and off equipment or other non-clothes items (perhaps a diver’s suit and tank), the entire period would not qualify as ‘time spent in changing clothes’ under [the Fair Labor Standards Act], even if some clothes items were donned and doffed as well,” Scalia wrote. “But if the vast majority of the time is spent in donning and doffing ‘clothes’ as we have defined that term, the entire period qualifies, and the time spent putting on and off other items need not be subtracted.”

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