Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp.

The Supreme Court makes its biggest headlines when it wades into the biggest issues of the day. But the Supreme Court also maintains a substantial docket of seemingly small—but ultimately important—technical questions.

In recent years, the Court has been particularly interested in defining precisely when an hourly employee is on and off the clock. For example, earlier this term, the Court held in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp. that employers need not compensate certain workers for time spent donning and doffing safety gear. The Court will answer a related question next term. Yesterday, the Court granted certiorari to decide whether end-of-shift security screenings to prevent theft are compensable time under the Fair Labor Standards Act, as amended by the Portal-to-Portal Act.

Although such screenings may take only a matter of minutes, when aggregated over the course of a two-year limitations period for numerous employees, the damages exposure can be substantial. That explains why a series of nationwide back-pay class actions have been filed in the wake of the Ninth Circuit’s decision that time spent in security screenings must be compensated.

The Supreme Court will now review that decision in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, No. 13-433. The legal issue is whether security screenings are “integral and indispensable” to employees’ “principal activities” or merely “preliminary” or “postliminary” to those activities. Under the Ninth Circuit’s view, security screenings are compensable because the task is necessary to the employees’ work and done for the benefit of the employer. But the Second Circuit has described security procedures as “modern paradigms of the preliminary and postliminary activities described in the Portal-to-Portal Act.”

Integrity Staffing is likely to be among the first cases heard when the Court reconvenes after its summer recess. Until then, expect the wave of related class actions to continue.

In recent years, one of the hottest types of collective actions against employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) is what is commonly called a “donning and doffing claim”—a lawsuit for unpaid wages for time employees spent changing clothes for work, such as putting on uniforms, safety gear, and the like. In a recent decision, Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp. (pdf), No. 12-417, the Supreme Court unanimously clarified the rules for these collective actions.

One of the major fights in donning and doffing suits is over the meaning of a key provision of the FLSA that exempts employers from having to compensate employees for off-the-clock “time spent in changing clothes … at the beginning or end of each workday” (29 U.S.C. § 203(o)) if a collective bargaining agreement so provides. Many agreements do exactly that.

Nonetheless, parties have litigated for years over what activities are exempt under Section 203(o). The plaintiffs’ bar typically takes a very narrow view of what constitutes “changing clothes” under the statute. The Court’s decision today takes a far more practical view of the statute. Sandifer makes clear that time spent donning or doffing protective gear that is (1) designed and used to cover the body and (2) commonly regarded as an article of dress—including hard hats, protective jackets, and protective coverings for the arms and legs—is exempt if the employees’ collective bargaining agreement so provides. In addition, minimal time spent putting on or removing other protective gear (such as safety glasses and earplugs) during this time is likewise exempt. Sandifer is therefore likely to reduce the number of circumstances that would allow plaintiffs to succeed in bringing donning-and-doffing lawsuits under the FLSA.

We provide more details about the decision in Sandifer after the jump.
Continue Reading Do Employers Have To Pay Unionized Workers For Time Spent Donning and Doffing Safety Gear? Supreme Court Says No.

Employers frequently face “donning and doffing” collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  In these lawsuits, plaintiffs accuse employers of failing to pay employees for off-the-clock time spent doffing and donning uniforms or safety gear at the beginning and end of every shift.  Today, the Supreme Court granted review in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., No. 12-417, to decide a recurring issue in these cases—the extent to which collective-bargaining agreements can waive employees’ right to compensation for time spent putting on and removing safety gear.  For more information about this case, which will be argued and decided next term, please see our report on the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari.