The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that unionized employers may not have to pay employees for putting on protective gear. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allows past practices or express terms of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to establish that time spent “changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday” doesn’t count as hours worked. The Supreme Court decided that most protective gear qualifies as “clothes.”

In Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., the company had a CBA that said it didn’t have to pay for time spent changing clothes before or after the shift. The Court defined “clothes” as “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress,” regardless of safety regulations. Considering the 12 most common kinds of protective gear used in the plant, the Court found that 9 of them qualify as clothes: “a flame-retardant jacket, pair of pants, and hood; a hardhat; a snood [a hood that also covers the neck and upper shoulder area]; wristlets; work gloves; leggings; and metatarsal boots.”

The Court determined that the remaining 3 items, safety glasses, earplugs, and respirators, were not clothes. However, the Court said putting on or removing safety glasses and earplugs is quick. Also, the respirators in this plant weren’t used unless a need arose during the workday, so that time would be paid anyway. The “vast majority” of time changing into or out of protective gear at the beginning or end of the workday was spent on the 9 items that qualified as clothes. Therefore the Court ruled that the entire “changing clothes” period could be excluded from work time under the CBA, so the employer was not required to pay for workers’ time spent donning and doffing their protective gear.

In order to protect the organization, employers should be aware of all uncompensated work activities that employees engage in before or after work, and evaluate whether these activities must be tracked and paid for. For more information, see the Vigilant Legal Guide, “Compensation for Pre-Shift and Post-Shift Activities” (1179), or contact your local Vigilantstaff representative.

About Vigilant

Vigilant ( helps employers in the Northwest and California navigate complex employment issues. Vigilant offers unlimited consulting with on-staff labor and employment attorneys, strategic HR professionals, and safety experts for a predictable, flat monthly membership fee. Membership includes employment law advice and resources for employee relations and human resources compliance. Vigilant’s professionals act as an extension of a business’s management team, allowing managers to focus on their core business objectives.

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