U.S. Supreme Court to Determine Whether Time Spent Putting On and Removing Equipment for Work Should Be Compensated
The United States Supreme Court will soon determine whether time spent putting on and removing -- or "donning" and "doffing" -- protective clothing for work should count as paid time. Workers at an Indiana steel mill, U.S. Steel's Gary Works, claim that it should. They spend considerable time donning jackets, pants, work gloves, steel-toed boots, eye protection, hard hats, and ear plugs before they start their work. The clothing protects them from the fire and molten steel from the mill's blast furnaces and coke ovens. However, 800 former and current workers claim that they have not been compensated for their time, and have filed a class action suit against their employer as a result. Meanwhile, U.S. Steel claims that the time the workers spend changing does not count as part of a day's work, as defined by the workers' union contract dating back to 1947.
Whether time for donning and doffing equipment should be compensated is a question that has frequently appeared in the lower courts. Many collective bargaining agreements even include provisions as to whether donning and doffing time is covered. Before a case on the issue can go through the courts, the workers involved must typically exhaust the remedies of the collective bargaining agreement, if there is one. If they fail to do so, the court will usually dismiss their case, stating that the workers may come back only after they have followed collective bargaining procedures.
The situation also highlights the changing nature of work, the difficulty with determining when a work week begins, and ways in which the federal Fair Labor Standards Act -- intended to address these issues -- is behind the times.