Wages for Donning Safety Gear Debated at U.S. High Court

U.S. Supreme Court justices questioned whether federal law guarantees that unionized factory workers receive compensation for time spent putting on and taking off safety equipment.

Hearing arguments today in Washington, the justices contemplated how to classify suits of armor and scuba tanks as they scrutinized a statute that lets employers avoid paying some workers for time spent changing clothes. Under federal law, that time need not be compensated if the union agrees to the exclusion through a collective-bargaining agreement.

The hour-long session suggested that the justices might be inclined to rule in favor of U.S. Steel Corp. in a lawsuit by 800 workers. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed to a photograph depicting the gear worn by some U.S. Steel workers -- items that include special jackets, pants, gloves, boots and helmets.

“From the picture, that looks like clothes to me,” Ginsburg said.

Corporate trade groups say a ruling in the workers’ favor could be costly. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose 300-plus members include Coca Cola Co. and Kraft Foods Group Inc., said in court papers that new litigation “could be devastating to many employers in the industry.”

The Washington-based trade group raised the prospect that companies might have to pay millions of employees more than $1,500 each. The case against U.S. Steel might grow as well, potentially drawing in hundreds or even thousands of other workers.

Armored Jousting

U.S. Steel’s lawyer, Lawrence DiNardo, said employers and unions should be able to agree that workers won’t be compensated for time spent in locker rooms. He argued that “changing clothes” covers the entire activity of putting on and taking off gear needed for the workday.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether that assertion could be squared with the statute’s wording. She asked whether workers would be changing clothes if they were required to don scuba tanks for their jobs.

“Your definition would include somebody spending an hour of putting on a suit of armor if he’s going to be a jouster,” she told DiNardo.

Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel is being sued by workers at its Gary, Indiana, facility. The workers say they spend as much as an hour before and after their shifts donning protective gear, including flame-retardant clothing and steel-toed boots, and then traveling to their work stations.

Union Contracts

The union that represents 4,500 workers at the Gary facility, the United Steelworkers of America, isn’t involved in the case. Since 1947, the union’s contracts with U.S. Steel have said workers don’t get paid for changing time.

The workers’ lawyer, Eric Schnapper, today contended that “clothing” typically refers to items that provide comfort or decency, and not to things that primarily protect against workplace hazards.

Several justices questioned whether that distinction was a workable one. Ginsburg asked how Schnapper could distinguish factory workers from bakers and doormen who wear special clothing either for sanitation or for appearances. Justice Samuel Alito asked about workers who spend time in the sun.

“So you are wearing clothing so that you don’t get burned by the sun,” Alito said. “What if you are working out in the cold and you wear a parka so that you don’t freeze while you’re working? Are those workplace hazards?”

The employees also contend they aren’t “changing” clothes unless they are substituting one article for another, and not if they are simply adding or subtracting items.

The company has the Obama administration’s support in the case, which the court will resolve by July.

A federal appeals court ruled against the workers, barring them from claiming compensation for the time they spend in the dressing rooms and in transit to their work stations.

The case is Sandifer v. United States Steel, 12-417.

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