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U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Indiana Steel Mill Employees Cannot Be Paid for Time Spent Donning and Doffing Equipment in Sandifer v. U.S. Steel

Indiana steel workers were on the losing end of a recent United States Supreme Court decision in the case Sandifer v. U.S. Steel. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that employers were not required to pay for time the employees spent “donning and doffing” — or putting on and removing — their workplace outfits if the union representing them had already bargained away the right for such pay. The ruling affects 800 steel workers who were part of a class action lawsuit, and promises to make it harder for unionized workers in general to seek compensation for work not addressed during labor negotiations.

protection-helmet-203723-m.jpgDonning and doffing provisions typically refer to putting on and removing workplace clothing. However, the 800 steel workers at U.S. Steel’s plant in Gary, Indiana had argued that the protective gear that they were forced to put on each day for their jobs — which included flame-retardant jackets and pants, work gloves, hard hats, safety glasses, and respirators — were not clothing, but “personal protective equipment.”

Justice Scalia, who wrote the opinion for the court, disagreed. He stated that time spent putting on such gear was not markedly different from time spent changing clothes, and that pants, leggings, and hardhats would typically be considered articles of dress. He did concede that items such as safety glasses, respirators, and earplugs were not examples of clothing, but stated that a ruling that separated those items from the rest would create problems for the lower court judges who dealt with similar cases in the future.

The ruling removes the possibility of more employee flexibility with collective bargaining agreements. Normally collective bargaining is done in accordance with provisions in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA), after employees in a workplace have formed a union. If all goes well, the employer will accept the employees right to bargain collectively, and a representative will be chosen to sit down with the employer and work out an agreement that meets the employees’ needs as much as possible. However, during the often long and tense period of negotiations, important provisions may be sacrificed so that even more important provisions can be retained. Or the employees may not realize how important a particular provision is until later. Since it may be years before the next collective bargaining agreement is made, employees may be stuck without the provision for some time.

That said, the Supreme Court’s ruling may be beneficial to employees as well as employers: just as employees do not have flexibility to go beyond the collective bargaining agreement for protection, perhaps that means employers will have less leeway in abiding by the agreement’s provisions. If you are an employee in Indiana or Kentucky with questions about your collective bargaining agreement, contact an Indiana or Kentucky labor law attorney today.

Miller & Falkner is a plaintiffs law firm serving residents of Kentucky and Indiana. Located in Louisville, Kentucky, the firm provides representation in the areas of personal injury and employment law. Contact us today for a free consultation.

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