By: Seth Nadel
In its first employment-related decision of 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp. that unionized steel workers were not entitled to have the time spent putting on and taking off protective gear factored into their compensated work hours. In doing so, the Court unanimously affirmed the result reached in the 7th Circuit precursor Sandifer, in which Judge Posner wrote for the majority in stating that workers were not entitled to be paid for the time they spent changing clothes and walking to and from the locker room in the plant in which they worked.
While the subject matter of the case seems superficially trivial, it carried important implications to industries that employ workers who are required to wear safety gear. As the Supreme Court remarked, the aggregate of the time and money owed to all employees should they be entitled to back pay for the time spent changing for work would be substantial. Fortunately for such employers, however, § 203(o) the Fair Labor Standards Act explicitly excludes “time spent changing clothes or washing at the beginning and end of each workday” when such compensation is not required under the workers’ collective bargaining agreement.
Thus followed Justice Scalia’s analysis of the meaning of the words “changing” and “clothes” under the FLSA. As to “clothes,” the Court refused to adopt the petitioners’ proffered distinction between regular dress and workplace safety gear, opting instead to take the word in its “ordinary, contemporary, common meaning” as dictated by the canon of statutory interpretation. Likewise, with regards to “changing,” the Court refused to separate items worn in place of ordinary clothing from safety gear worn over them. An important consideration in the disposition of the case is that the subject of compensability of time spent changing clothes is property committed to collective bargaining agreements under the FLSA, and the agreement in the context at issue did not provide for compensation.
The case is also noteworthy for its treatment of the so-called de minimis doctrine. Coined by the courts, the de minimis doctrine refers to the very short periods of time beyond the scheduled working hours that are so minimal and hard to quantify that they are necessarily excluded from compensation as part of the work day. While the District Court and 7th Circuit relied upon the doctrine in coming to the same result, the Supreme Court showed doubt as to its application in the context of the FLSA statute at issue which, the opinion contended, was “all about trifles.”
Leaving aside the implications of potential back pay by employers and the impact of current collective bargaining agreements, the court seemed reluctant to begin drawing fine distinctions between which clothing was covered under the FLSA provision and which was not. By pulling all items of clothing integral to job performance under the scope of § 203(o), the Court may have succeeded in both firmly relegating the subject to the realm of collective bargaining and staving off future litigation with regards to the policeman’s uniform, the baker’s apron, or even the judge’s robes.
 Jon Hyman, The Sandifer vs. U.S. Steel Decision, The Practical Employer (Jan. 31, 2014), http://www.workforce.com/blogs/3-the-practical-employer/post/20225-the-sandifer-vs-us-steel-decision.
 Sandifer et al. v. United States Steel Corp., No. 12-417, slip op. at 15 (U.S. Jan. 27, 2014).
 Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., 678 F.3d 590 (7th Cir. 2012) cert. granted, 133 S. Ct. 1240, 185 L. Ed. 2d 177 (U.S. 2013) and aff’d, 12-417, 2014 WL 273241 (U.S. Jan. 27, 2014).
 Lawrence Hurley, UPDATE 3-U.S. Steel wins Supreme Court labor fight, Reuters (Jan. 27, 2014, 6:33 PM), http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/27/usa-court-labor-idUSL2N0L10RM20140127.
 Sandifer, slip op. at 2.
 29 U.S.C. § 203(o) (2006).
 Sandifer, slip op. at 6.
 Id. at 10.
 Id. at 5.
 Fisher & Philips LLP, United States: Supreme Court Clarifies Meaning Of “Changing Clothes” Under The Fair Labor Standards Act, Mondaq (Jan. 31, 2014), http://www.mondaq.com/unitedstates/x/290004/employee+rights+labour+relations/Supreme+Court+Clarifies+Meaning+Of+Changing+Clothes+Under+The+Fair+Labor+Standards+Act.
 Sandifer, slip op. at 13.