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U.S. Steel wins Supreme Court donning and doffing case

January 2014

On January 27, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in favor of Jones Day client U.S. Steel Corporation when it ruled that the time workers spent donning and doffing work clothes was not compensable.

In Sandifer v. U. S. Steel, the plaintiffs worked as non-exempt production and maintenance employees at U. S. Steel. They alleged that they were not paid overtime under the FLSA for time they spent "donning and doffing" their work clothes in locker rooms before and after their shifts. They also claimed that they were not paid for time they spent traveling to and from their work stations.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Section 203(o) of the FLSA (29 U.S.C. § 203(o)) barred plaintiffs' donning and doffing claims. Section 203(o) provides that the time employees spend "changing clothes" at the beginning and end of the workday is not compensable as long as the union representing the employees and employer agree that such time is "excluded from measured working time." There was no dispute that the union and U. S. Steel had entered into such an agreement. The issue was whether the items the plaintiffs donned and doffed – i.e., flame-retardant pants and jacket, work gloves, metatarsal boots a hard hat, safety glasses, ear plugs, and a "snood" (a hood that covers the top of the head, the chin, and the neck) – constituted "clothes." While these items certainly provided protection against the hazards of a steel mill, the Seventh Circuit reasoned that "[i]t would be absurd to exclude all work clothes that have a protective function from section 203(o), and thus limit the exclusion largely to actors' costumes and waiters' and doormen's uniforms." Thus, according to the court, the items at issue constituted "clothes" for purposes of the statute.

In siding with the Company, the Supreme Court looked to the meanings of the words "clothes" and “changing" at the time the Portal-to-Portal Act was enacted as an amendment to the Fair Labor and Standard Act of 1938.  Specifically, the Court held that relying on these interpretations, "clothes" are "items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress." For the same reason, the Court rejected the workers' proposed meaning of "changing" to mean only substitution, explaining that there were two common meanings for the word at the time of § 203's enactment: 'substitute' and 'alter.'" The Court further explained that "[t]he object of §203(o) is to permit collective bargaining over the compensability of clothes-changing time and to promote the predictability achieved through mutually beneficial negotiation. There can be little predictability, and hence little meaningful negotiation, if 'changing' means only 'substituting.'"  Applying these new definitions, the Court held that nine of the twelve particular items the workers cited are clothes. The Court further held that the last three items fall under the de minimis doctrine because the time employees spend taking those items on and off is minimal.

Lawrence C. DiNardo argued the case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court for U.S. Steel.  The Jones Day team on the appeal also consisted of Brian J. Murray of the Firm's Chicago office, Amy E. Dias of the Firm's Washington Office, and Brian M. Jorgensen of the Firm's Dallas office.

Sandifer et al. v. United States Steel Corporation, 571 U.S. ____ (2014); Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, Case No. 10-1821, 10-1866 (7th Cir.)

For additional information about this matter, please contact: Lawrence C. DiNardo, Brian M. Jorgensen

Client(s): U. S. Steel Corporation
Practice(s): Labor & Employment