The Supreme Court to Decide The Meaning of “Clothes” under the FLSA

On November 4, 2013, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Sandifer v U. S. Steel case. This case was brought by a group of steelworkers working in a factory in Gary, Indiana. The workers, who were unionized, claimed they should be paid for time spent changing into several flame-retardant piece of clothing, which are designed to protect them against workplace hazard. The question was whether the time spent by the workers could be excluded from compensable time even though the applicable collective bargaining agreement excluded time spent “changing clothes” from the compensable workday, as permitted by section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which states that “there shall be excluded any time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday which was excluded from measured working time during the week involved by the express terms of or by custom or practice under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement applicable to the particular employee.”
This case turns on the Court’s interpretation of the language “changing clothes” in section 203(o) of the FSLA. U.S. Steel argues “changing clothes” refers to “the activity of donning and doffing the entire outfit worn by an employee to be ready to work.” Sandifer, however, contends that “changing” encompasses the substitution of clothes for other clothes, but that the meaning of “clothes” in section 203(o) is ambiguous. Therefore, putting on protective clothes is not within the meaning of section 203(o) and they should be permitted to maintain an FLSA collective action to recover compensation for the time spent donning and doffing those items.
Sandifer argues that “clothes” should not include items designed to protect against workplace hazards. Nevertheless, the Seventh Circuit ruled against the plaintiffs and rejected their broad approach as, they decided most of the of the gear the plaintiffs wore was clothing and the few remaining items — such as earplugs and goggles — took so little time to put on that it could be excluded as de minimis.

During the Supreme Court oral argument, the plaintiffs sought to define “clothes” narrowly to exclude items that are worn to protect against workplace hazards. U.S. Steel, in contrast, sought to define “clothes” broadly to include the entire “work outfit” that an employee wears to perform his or her job. They argued that the Court should consider all items with the purpose of covering the body to be “clothes,” and added that in determining what activities fall under ยง 203(o), the Court should look at the entirety of the block of time in which employees are “changing clothes” rather than focus on the individual items. Finally, the United States, who appeared as amicus curiae, took a middle position, by arguing that a distinction should be drawn between clothing and equipment.

Justices seemed to struggle to find balance the interests of the parties in order to have a workable definition of what it means to “change clothes” in the workplace. Justice Alito suggested that all clothing serves some sort of protective function while Justice Kagan argued that an item’s function is not relevant to whether it constitutes clothing. Justice Scalia suggested that items like eyeglasses and wristwatches are not clothes. Justice Sotomayor took issue with the Plaintiffs’ approach to the extent it excluded “things that look like clothes.” However, it was clear from the oral arguments that Justices intend to create a broad rule to achieve clarity rather than simply decide whether the specific items worn by the steelworkers in this case are “clothes” – which does not mean that they will go as far as to adopt the workers’ proposal.

If you are an employee and you think your rights under the FLSA are being violated by your employer, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.