FLSA section 203(o) allows employers and unions to bargain about whether to pay employees for time spent “changing clothes” on employer. However, courts have struggled with interpreting the meaning of “changing clothes” under the section 203(o) exception. The question is whether “clothes” includes work-related gear not commonly regarded as clothes. In Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation the Supreme Court defined “changing clothes” under the FLSA to provide guidance to courts interpreting the section 203(o) exception.
In Sandifer, steelworkers challenged a provision in their collective bargaining agreement about donning and doffing protective gear. The steelworkers argued the Fair Labor Standards Act required them to be paid for the time. The employer argued the steelworkers’ protective gear fell within the Section 203(o) exception, letting them bargain with the union about donning and doffing.
The court had to decide whether the steelworkers’ gear fell within the statute’s definition of “clothes.” The gear at issue was a flame-retardant jacket, pair of pants, hood, hardhat, “snood”, “wristlets”, work gloves, leggings, steel-toe boots, safety glasses, ear plugs, and a respirator. The Court said “clothes” are “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.” Rather than broadly defining “clothes” to include anything worn on the body, the Court distinguished between clothes and wearable items that are not clothes, such as equipment and devices. Using this definition, most of the steelworkers’ protective gear constituted “clothes” under the statute. But the eyeglasses, ear plugs, and respirator, were not “clothes” because they are not commonly regarded as articles of dress.
Since not all of the steelworkers’ gear fell within the statute’s definition of “clothes”, the Court had to decide if employers and courts should separate the minutes spent donning and doffing the non-clothes items from the clothes items. The Court said this would be tedious and impractical. The Court’s solution was to group the items together depending on the time spent donning and doffing each article of clothing or gear.
The Court’s opinion clarifies when employers must compensate employees for time spent donning and doffing work-related clothing and gear. Under the Court’s meaning of “clothes,” even time spent donning and doffing unique gear can be excluded from compensation if the majority of time is spent “changing clothes.” Using the same reasoning, if employees spend a vast majority of their time donning and doffing unique gear on the employer’s premises, the time spent changing articles of clothing may also be compensable.