Unanimous Ruling by the Court
In a 9-0 opinion by Justice Scalia, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Sandifer v. U.S. Steel that employees were not owed compensation for the time spent donning protective gear. The petitioners sought back pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act Sec. 203(o) for the time taken to put on protective clothing. Check out our previous article on the case for more background.
Time Spent Changing into Protective Gear is Not Compensable
The Supreme Court held that the time petitioners spent donning and doffing their protective gear is not compensable by operation of Sec. 203(o). The Court was tasked with interpreting whether putting on and taking off protective gear satisfied the statutory phrase “changing clothes”. The petitioners argued because the clothing that they put on and took off served a protective function, it did not constitute “clothes” for the purposes of the statute. They further argued that because the protective clothing was used over their street clothes that it did not constitute “changing” clothes.
The Meaning of “Clothes”
The Court rejected petitioners’ arguments. The term “clothes” is “interpreted as taking [its] ordinary, contemporary common meaning.” Perrin v. U.S., 444 U.S. 37, 42 (1979). The Court explained nothing in the statute’s test or context suggests anything other than the ordinary meaning. There is no basis for the petitioners’ proposition that the unmodified term “clothes” somehow omits protective clothing.
The Court did conclude that three items did not qualify as “clothes” under Sec. 203(o) – safety glasses, earplugs, and a respirator. Compensation was not owed for these items because the vast majority of time is spent donning and doffing “clothes” as defined here. The Court concluded that the time donning and doffing safety glasses and ear plugs was minimal. The respirators were donned and doffed as needed during the workday and fell beyond the scope of Sec. 203(o). Therefore, the petitioners were not owed additional compensation, and the Court reached a favorable opinion for employers concluding that compensation was not owed for the time employees spent changing protective clothes.
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