Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corporation: The US Supreme Court defines “changing clothes”

In Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corporation, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a new decision regarding when employers must compensate employees for “donning and doffing” work clothes under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  Specifically at issue was the amount of time spent by steelworkers putting on and taking off several items of protective work gear – e.g., flame-retardant pants and jackets, work gloves, steel-toed boots, hard hats, safety glasses, earplugs, etc.  Time spent changing into and out of clothes for work is generally compensable if it is an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities” of the employee.  The protective work gear at issue in Sandifer meets the “integral and indispensable” test because that gear is necessary for steelworkers to do their jobs safely.  However, the FLSA has an exception that permits employers to not compensate time spent “changing clothes” if negotiated as part of a collective bargaining agreement.  U.S. Steel had a collective bargaining agreement with that exception.

The dispute before the Supreme Court was whether the “changing clothes” exception applies to work gear that’s primarily purpose was for “protection” instead of “comfort.”  The Supreme Court rejected this distinction because clothes ordinarily do both.  Broadly speaking, most of the protective gear were kinds of clothes (pants, jackets, boots, hats, gloves,), which satisfied the Supreme Court.  However, some of the protective gear would not ordinarily be considered clothes, such as work glasses and earplugs.  For these non-clothes items, the Supreme Court evaluated the changing process “on the whole” to determine how to treat the time spent putting on and taking off those items.  If the changing process involves mostly clothes, the entire period qualifies for the “changing clothes” exception under the FLSA.  If the changing process involves mostly non-clothes items, the entire period does not qualify for the “changing clothes” exception.

The Sandifer decision provides new guidance for those employers with collective bargaining agreements that take advantage of the “changing clothes” FLSA exception.  For all other employers, the general rule remains unchanged requiring compensation for time spent changing into and out of clothes for work if it is an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities” of the employee.

Derrick T. Wright

Derrick is an associate at Sturgill, Turner, Barker & Moloney, PLLC  and concentrates his practice on public entity and government defense, constitutional law and civil rights, as well as employment and labor law. He regularly defends local governments and officials against claims involving Section 1983, Title VII, the ADA, the ADEA, the FLSA , the Kentucky Civil Rights Act and the Kentucky Wage and Hour Act.

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