SCOTUS issues ruling on compensation for clothing changes at work

In a case called Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., hundreds of employees working at a steel manufacturing plant filed a lawsuit against their employer alleging that they should've been paid wages for the time spent "donning and doffing" their mandated protective gear pursuant to the language stipulated in the Fair Labor Standards Act. The protective gear included flame-retardant jackets, pants, hardhats, snoods respirators, work gloves, boots, safety glasses and earplugs, among others.

The FLSA's lack of clarification

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are required to pay their workers for all periods the employees spend "working." The language of the law stipulates that employees aren't allowed pay for "any time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday..."

In the lawsuit, the steelworkers argue that the "protective gear" they are mandated to wear is not "clothing" within the meaning of the law and therefore they say they should be paid for the time needed to take on and off this gear.

The case made its way up the court ladder and eventually landed in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. For months, the parties anxiously awaited a decision from the high court.

The court finally issued a ruling on the matter.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling

Essentially, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the workers' "protective gear" did in fact fall under the "clothing" definition in the FLSA and stated that the steelworkers were not entitled to be compensated for the time putting on and taking off the articles.

According to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, "We see no basis for the proposition that the unmodified term 'clothes' somehow omits protective clothing."

In the opinion, Scalia agreed that the other gear, including safety glasses, earplugs and respirators, did not fall under the definition of "clothing" under the law, but ruled that the workers still were not entitled to compensation for donning and doffing these items.

Scalia reasoned that the time needed to take on and off these items at the beginning and end of each workday was just too "de minimis" (too small or trivial) to be eligible for compensation.

"A few seconds or minutes of work beyond the scheduled working hours may be disregarded," Scalia stated in the opinion.

Effects of the ruling for workers

The good news is that the ruling provides further clarification regarding the activities that are considered working under the law. The bad news is that the ruling is a blow to workers who now have to take significant time to prepare for the workday without getting paid.