Court Complicates Payment for Donning and Doffing Safety Gear

           A new federal court ruling further complicates whether you have to pay employees for the time they spend putting on and taking off safety gear. This recent ruling is a split decision for employers.

            A district court has ruled that a company doesn’t have to pay workers for donning and doffing personal protective equipment (PPE). However, the employer may have to pay for the time spent walking from where the gear is stored to their work areas.

            Three employees sued U.S. Steel Corp. seeking pay for the time spent donning and doffing PPE, showering, and walking to and from their workstations after donning and before doffing. The company asked the district court to throw out the case.

            In Steiner v. Mitchell, the Supreme Court ruled “activities, such as the donning and doffing of specialized protective gear that are performed either before or after the regular workshift, on or off the production line, are compensable if those activities are an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed.”

However, federal law says there are exceptions if two conditions are met:

  1. There must be a bona fide collective bargaining agreement that excludes such payment, and
  2. The activities at issue must constitute “changing clothes” within the meaning of the statute.

            The employees in question did have a collective bargaining agreement that excluded time spent donning and doffing PPE.

            So the matter came down to this: Were the employees just changing clothes or putting on specialized PPE?

            The court found, after looking at photos and video of the PPE at issue, that flame retardant jackets and pants, glasses, boots, and hard hats unquestionably fell within the common definition of clothes.

            For that reason, the court partially granted U.S. Steel’s request and threw out the part of the lawsuit regarding donning, doffing and showering.

            But the district court didn’t throw out the question of whether to pay for the time walking from changing areas to workstations. It cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Alvarez that “during a continuous workday, any walking time that occurs after the beginning of the employee’s first principal activity and before the end of the employee’s last principal activity” is compensable.

The question over walking time will now go to trial.

For more on PPE donning and doffing:
PPE – Personal Protective Equipment
Special Report
New Court decision