Most people who wear uniforms don’t get paid for the time they spend at home, putting the uniform on. But, in California, when employers require that protective gear or equipment be put on at the workplace, that time is sometimes compensable. So, people with union agreements would have to be paid for that time, right? Not necessarily so.
This year, the Supreme Court found that the employer and the union can define compensable time in the union agreement. The case is Sandifer v. US Steel Corp, 134 S. Ct 870. However, in this case, a very small amount of time was involved in putting on anything beyond clothing.
The employees who sued pointed to a list of 12 common kinds of protective gear – from a flame-retardant jacket, a hardhat and work gloves to protective glasses, a respirator and earplugs – all of which took time to put on and take off. The Supremes noted that even if the amount of time was just a few minutes, because the company involved was huge, it could mean a lot of money if employers were required to pay for that time. That’s because the case was filed as a class action against a large employer.
However, in this case, the district court found that they were just changing clothes, and the time spent on the protective was too small to matter. The Supreme Court agreed with the lower court this year. The highest court in the land first turned to Webster’s dictionary to examine the word “clothes,” because the employees argued that protective gear wasn’t the same thing. But the Court found that because clothing was the only protective gear indispensable to many jobs – from factories to longshoremen and butchers. In this case, the extra safety equipment was merely safety glasses, earplugs and respirators, and because they didn’t take a long time to put on, the employees need not be paid for it.