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High Court Case Takes on “Donning and Doffing” Under the FLSA

Despite the fact that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has been in effect for almost 75 years, there are still instances where its nuances require judicial interpretation. One issue that arises from time to time is the extent to which union-negotiated collective bargaining agreements can override certain provisions of the FLSA. In a recent case before the United States Supreme Court, the Court considered what effect a collective bargaining agreement could have on the general FLSA rule that time required to change clothes and apply and remove safety equipment at the beginning and end of each shift — donning and doffing time — is compensable work time.

In the recently decided case of Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., the Court examined a collective bargaining agreement that purported to bargain away employees’ rights to be paid for donning and doffing time:

  • Traditionally, the FLSA required employers to pay regular wages for the time employees spent changing before and after starting their shifts.
  • Amendments to the FLSA in 1949, however, made it clear that the compensability of the time spent “changing clothes” was a legitimate subject of bargaining during collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations.

In this case, the employees argued that the protective gear they were required to wear for the duration of their workdays did not meet the definition of “clothes” and therefore did not fall within the purview of the 1949 amendments. As such, it was not a legitimate subject of collective bargaining, voiding the provision in the CBA that stated the time required to don and remove such gear was not compensable.

The Court disagreed, choosing to apply a more traditional dictionary meaning of “clothes” and finding that a more nuanced reading would potentially render this particular provision of the 1949 amendments functionally meaningless. This case further expands the latitude employers and their labor law attorneys have in negotiating CBAs with their employees.

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