Companies in many cases don’t have to pay workers for the time they spend putting on and taking off safety gear, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, siding with U.S. Steel Corp. in a lawsuit by 800 workers.
The justices on Monday unanimously said the U.S. Steel employees are bound by their collective bargaining agreement, which says they get paid only for time at their work stations. The workers argued that a federal wage-and-hour law entitled them to additional wages no matter what the union agreement said.
Corporate trade groups said a ruling in the workers’ favor would have been costly. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose 300-plus members include Coca Cola Co. and Kraft Foods Group Inc., said a Supreme Court defeat would have forced companies to pay millions of employees more than $1,500 each.
Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel was being sued by workers at its Indiana facility, in Gary. The workers said 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.
The union that represents 4,500 workers at the Gary facility, the United Steelworkers of America, wasn’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 case turned on a provision in the federal law that says a collective bargaining agreement governs whether workers get paid for time spent “changing clothes.” The workers said their gear isn’t “clothes” because its primary function is to protect against workplace hazards.
Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia rejected that interpretation. “We see no basis for the proposition that the unmodified term ‘clothes’ somehow omits protective clothing,” he wrote.
The court also rejected the employees’ contention that they are “changing” clothes only if they are substituting one article for another, and not if they are simply adding or subtracting items.
The court said “changing clothes” covers the entire activity of putting on and taking off gear needed for the workday, adopting U.S. Steel’s interpretation of the law.
The Obama administration largely supported U.S. Steel in the case, though arguing for a less categorical legal rule.
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.