When does safety equipment qualify as “clothing”? When the Supreme Court says it does.  

In a long awaited ruling, the high court rejected the claim of nearly 800 current and former U.S. Steel workers who claimed they should be paid for the time the spent putting on and taking off safety gear.

In arguments in lower courts, the feds had made their opinion clear: The time spent “changing clothes” can be excluded from compensable time, unless a union has negotiated otherwise.

The workers’ union contract with U.S. Steel said they weren’t going to be paid for time spent changing clothes. But the workers claimed they weren’t changing “clothes,” they were putting on safety gear.

Most of it’s ‘clothing,’ but …

The justices weren’t buying that argument. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court said that safety gear generally fits within the definition of clothing.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote:

“We see no basis for the proposition that the unmodified term ‘clothes’ somehow omits protective clothing.”

He said items such as flame-retardant jackets, hardhats, work gloves and steel-toe boots are common articles of dress and therefore should be classified as clothing.

However, he said that items such as safety glasses, ear plugs and respirators are generally not viewed as clothes and should be considered safety equipment. He also warned that a ruling separating different clothing items from safety items would create a problem for judges down the road.

More legal challenges on the way?

While the ruling will no doubt be welcomed by employers that don’t want to pay employees for the time spent putting on and taking off safety gear, it failed to draw a hard line between what counts as safety gear and what doesn’t.

Instead, it defined the 12 items listed in the U.S. Steel lawsuit as either safety gear or clothing.

That means the feds still don’t consider all safety gear clothing, which in turn means this is likely not the end of these kinds of lawsuits.

While the definition of clothing has been broadened, chances are battles will still be fought in lower courts over whether certain items count as safety gear — for which the time spent putting them on and taking them off is compensable. And those courts will now rely on this new ruling for guidance when making those determinations.

Ruling could have been ‘devastating’

For the time being, the ruling means a lot of companies won’t have to pay employees for the time spent putting on and taking off safety gear — unless a collective bargaining agreement requires such payment.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said a ruling for U.S. Steel’s workers could have been “devastating” to many employers, whose workforces could’ve then turned around and sued for back pay for the time they spent changing into and out of protective gear.

Cite: Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp.



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