Supreme Court Says Employers Must Pay Employees for Time Between Putting on Safety Gear and Arriving at Work Station
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued an opinion in two consolidated Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) cases that could change the way some construction contractors must pay their craft workers. The cases address the question of whether an employer must pay workers for the time spent walking to the place where they perform productive labor after putting on safety gear at the beginning of the workday and the time spent walking back to take off the gear at the end of the workday. The Court answered yes.
The first case was a class action suit brought by workers in the slaughter and processing divisions of a large meat processing company. The workers were required to wear a variety of protective clothing and equipment, from hairnets and earplugs to chain link metal aprons and plexiglass armguards, and more, depending on their classification. They sued to recover compensation for the time spent donning and doffing the gear and for the time spent walking between the locker rooms where they were required to store the gear and the production floor before and after their shifts. The trial and appellate courts ruled on behalf of the workers on both counts. The company did not further challenge the decision that the time spent donning and doffing unique protective gear is compensable time, so the only question before the Supreme Court was whether the company must pay workers for postdonning and predoffing walking time.
The Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947 amended the FLSA to clarify that Congress did not intend to require employers to pay for certain ancillary activities. Section 4(a) specifically exempts from compensable time “(1) walking, riding, or traveling to and from the actual place of performance of the principal activity or activities which such employee is employed to perform, and (2) activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to said principal activity or activities, which occur either prior to the time on any particular workday at which such employee commences, or subsequent to the time on any particular workday at which he ceases, such principal activity or activities.” In a 1956 decision, the Court held that the statute does not exclude the donning and doffing of specialized protective gear and other activities that are “performed either before or after the regular work shift, on or off the production line” if those activities “are an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities” for which covered workers are employed.
In the present case, the Court concluded that the locker rooms where the gear is donned and doffed are the relevant “place of performance” of the “principal activity” within the meaning of §4(a)(1). Walking to that place before starting work is excluded from FLSA coverage, but not walking from that place to another area within the plant after the workday has begun. When the donning and doffing of protective gear are compensable activities, they may define the outer limits of the workday. Any activity which is “integral and indispensable” to a “principal activity” is itself a “principal activity.” Under the “continuous workday rule,” walking time (excluding unpaid breaks) that occurs after the beginning of the employee's first principal activity and before the end of the employee's last principal activity is covered by the FLSA.
The companion case similarly involved workers at a poultry processing plant required to wear special protective clothing who sued to recover compensation for donning and doffing time, and attendant walking and waiting. Again, the Court found that, because the workers were donning and doffing gear that was “integral and indispensable” to their work, the donning and doffing, as well as time spent walking to the production floor after donning and before doffing, are compensable. Accordingly, under the continuous workday rule, time spent by workers waiting to doff the gear is also compensable. However, time spent waiting to don the first piece of gear that marks the start of the continuous workday is not compensable. Such waiting is “two steps removed from the productive activity on the assembly line” and “comfortably qualifies as a ‘preliminary’ activity.”
The opinion leaves open the possibility that some postdonning and predoffing walking time is not compensable, such as when the donning and doffing time itself does not rise to the level of “integral and indispensable” to a principal activity. As the Court noted, “the fact that certain preshift activities are necessary for employees to engage in their principal activities does not mean that those activities are ‘integral and indispensable’ to a ‘principal activity.’” Contractors are advised to review their practices to ensure that they are in compliance with the FLSA and, if unsure as to whether particular employee activities are “integral and indispensable” to a “principal activity,” may wish to consult the company’s employment lawyer for advice.
IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez, Case No. 03-1238 (S.Ct., 11/8/05).
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