US Supreme Court hears case about pay for time spent changing for work

On November 4, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, a case dealing with overtime payment for workers who need to put on protective gear for their jobs. The decision in the case could have far-reaching implications for unionized workers in a number of sectors across the U.S.

Indiana steel workers seeking wages

The suit was filed by 800 steel workers in Gary, IN, claiming that the Fair Labor Standards Act requires the employer to pay them overtime wages for the time they spend putting on and taking off the gear they need to wear for their jobs before and after each shift. The workers are required to don flame-retardant outerwear, hard hats, gloves, boots, ear plugs, hoods and safety glasses prior to reporting to their work stations.

What is "protective gear"?

The critical distinction in the case is what constitutes "protective gear" and what is simply "clothing." The law allows employers and unions to agree that the union members will not receive compensation for the time the members spend changing clothes or washing before and after a shift. However, the FLSA mandates that employers compensate employees for the time that they spend putting on and removing protective gear necessary for their jobs, no matter what agreements are in place between unions and employers.

The union and the steel plant owner had an agreement about not receiving compensation for changing clothes, but the workers argue that the various items they are required to wear for their jobs are not simply clothes, but rather fall under the protective gear provision of the FLSA, and they should receive wages for the time they spend putting them on and taking them off.

A three-judge panel had disagreed with the steel workers' claim, however. The court ruled that most of what the workers wore was clothing, noting that perhaps the hard hats, ear plugs and safety glasses were protective gear. However, the court said that the time workers spent putting on those items was "negligible," so their wages would not be affected.

Experts believe that the Supreme Court will issue an opinion in the case before it recesses in 2014.

Speak with an attorney

Employees work hard enough at their jobs; they should not have to battle their employers for their wages. However, some employers do not want to pay employees the full amount of money they have earned, and they try to find reasons not to pay. Employees have recourse in such situations, and everyone should be aware of their rights regarding payment of wages. If you have questions or concerns about payment policies or practices at your job, speak with an experienced employment law attorney who can discuss your situation with you and advise you how to proceed.