Eight hundred (800) former and current hourly workers at U.S. Steel's Steel Works in Gary, Indiana filed a lawsuit based on the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, 29 U.S.C. § 201 ("The FLSA"). They argued that U.S. Steel violated the FLSA by failing to compensate them for the time they spend in putting on and taking off their work clothes in a locker room at the plant ("clothes changing time") and in walking from the locker room to their work stations, and back again at the end of the day ("travel time") The workers are under a collective bargaining agreement between U.S. Steel and the steelworkers union which does not require compensation for such time.None of the previous collective bargaining agreements since 1947 required this compensation. The workers argued that the FLSA itself requires payment for this time; and it if does, it overrides any contrary contractual provision in the agreement.
The FLSA requires that workers be paid at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked and time and a half for hours worked over 40 hours in a week. The statute does not define "work." In 1947, Congress passed the Portal-to-Portal Act, 29 U.S.C. 251 and two years later added section 3(o) to the FLSA. That section excludes from compensated time, "any time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday." Plaintiffs argue that the section is inapplicable because they are not changing "clothes" but removing safety equipment consisting of flame-retardant pants and jacket, work gloves, work boots, hard hat, safety glass, ear plugs and hood.
The District Court ruled that the FLSA does not require that clothes-changing time be compensated but may require that travel time be compensated. The District Court judge certified the issue of compensability for travel time for an interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. 1292(b) and the United States Court of Appeals accepted the appeal.
The Court of Appeals stated that ear plugs, hard hat, and glasses are not clothing but that they can be removed in a matter of seconds and are hence not compensable. The Court of Appeals states that a common function of "clothing" is protection from the elements; the items being donned were "clothes" under Section 3(o) of the FLSA; and that changing into clothes required for work was contemplated under the FLSA and was excluded from compensation. The Court of Appeals therefore stated that the district judge was correct in finding that changing into work clothes was not compensated under the FLSA.
Regarding travel time, the FLSA exempts, "walking, riding, or traveling to and from the actual place or performance of the principal activity or activities which such employee is employed to perform." 29 U.S.C. 254(a). The Court of Appeals held this was noncompensable time as well.
This case is currently pending before the Supreme Court of the United States and is set for oral arguments in November 2013. The main issue before the Supreme Court is to resolve the split of opinion by agreeing to decide the following question, "What exactly constitutes 'clothes'?" If you have a question about compensation under the FLSA contact an attorney to discuss your legal rights.