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Sandifer v. U.S. Steel: No Pay for Time Spent Changing Clothes

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

Steel workers have to wear safety gear. Lots of it, in fact. And "donning and doffing" this gear takes quite a bit of time. They want to be paid for this time.

Unfortunately, their union, pursuant to 29 U.S.C. §203(o), already agreed that they shouldn't get paid for this time. That provision requires employers to pay for time spent changing clothes, unless collective bargaining provides to the contrary.

The question is, can the massive amount of protective gear that they are required to wear be considered "clothes," as that word was used in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938?

Unanimous: Yes. Clothes Are Clothes. And Changing Is Changing.

In a true Scalia opinion, he went straight to the dictionaries from the era of the statute's passage. How did those authorities define "clothes"?

  • Webster's Second (1950): Covering for the human body; dress; vestments; vesture.
  • Oxford English Dictionary (1933): Covering for the person; wearing apparel; dress, raiment, vesture.

The steel workers argued that "clothes" is a vague term that couldn't possibly have been meant to include safety gear. But Scalia noted that not only do the dictionary definitions cover protective gear, but to adopt their interpretation would reduce §203(o) to "near nothingness."

The provision applies only when the clothing constitutes "an integral and indispensible part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed." And protective gear is the only clothing that is "integral and indispensible" to the workers' profession.

The workers also tried arguing that "changing" should only apply when street clothes are removed in favor of work clothes, instead of layering protective gear on top.

What did the contemporaneous dictionary say? Ordinarily, "change" means "to make substitution of...." But a second definition includes "alter," which applies to slapping on protective gear, even if you don't strip down to your skivvies first.

Besides, the narrow definition would be really impractical, especially if Bob likes to wear nothing but long johns under his protective suit, but Jim prefers to layer, perhaps because rubber suits can chafe. And Scalia doesn't want the applicable law to be "influenced by such happenstances and vagaries as what month it is, what styles are in vogue, what time the employee wakes up, what mode of transportation he uses, and so on."

Scalia-ism of the Day: Drinking and Skiing

Some of the workers' gear, namely ear plugs and safety glasses, aren't considered clothing. Nonetheless, the Court wasn't willing to force an employer to pay for the mere seconds it takes to plug one's ears:

"Just as one can speak of 'spending the day skiing' even when less-than-negligible portions of the day are spent having lunch or drinking hot toddies, so also one can speak of 'time spent changing clothes and washing' when the vast preponderance of the period in question is devoted to those activities."

Great analogy, Justice Scalia, though we'd advise against having hot toddies during lunch if you're planning on heading back out to the slopes. Just sayin'.

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