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Supreme Court Rules That Steel Workers Clothes Changing Breaks Are Properly Off the Clock


Wage and hour lawsuits over the time employees take to change in and out of protective gear have been going back and forth in the courts for years now. One of the issues that has been debated is the definition of the word “clothes”. While the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to pay their workers for all time spent working, the Act does not define “work”. Instead, it defines a “principal activity” as any activity which is necessary to performing the job. Any work performed between principal activities is compensable under the FLSA.

Whether the time spent changing into and out of protective gear can be considered a “principal activity” has also been a much-debated issue. While the time needed to conduct this activity may be short, it can easily add up over time, leaving workers with hours of compensable time for which they have not been paid. The Department of Labor has issued an opinion that time spent changing into and out of clothes does not constitute a principal activity. Although the Department of Labor is not a lawmaking entity, courts usually refer to their opinions when ruling in cases of employment law.

The definition of “clothes” has also been debated. The Supreme Court pointed out that dictionaries commonly define clothes as “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.” However, the plaintiffs in this case argued that, because protective gear is normally worn over clothes and not work outside of work, it should not be included in the definition of clothes. They have also argued that, because U.S. Steel requires its steelworkers to wear their protective gear, the activity should be considered a principal activity and is therefore compensable.
One recent example of this is the class action of about 800 current and former union steel workers who filed a wage and hour lawsuit against their employer, U.S. Steel, for allegedly violating the FLSA by refusing to pay the steelworkers for the time that they spend changing into and out of their protective gear. U.S. Steel argued that they were not required by the union’s bargaining agreement to pay the steelworkers for that time. The company also claimed that paying employees for more time would result in lower hourly wages to protect the company’s bottom line.

The lower courts ruled in favor of U.S. Steel and the steelworkers appealed until the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The Supreme Court upheld the rulings of the lower courts. In the court’s unanimous opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, he stated that the court saw “no basis for the proposition that the unmodified term ‘clothes’ somehow omits protective clothing.” Scalia determined that, of the steelworkers’ protective clothing, only three items did not qualify under the definition of “clothing”. Those items were safety glasses, earplugs, and a respirator. However, he ruled that the time spent putting on and taking off these three items was so negligible as to make it not worthwhile to compensate the employee’s for that time.

The plaintiffs also argued that the term “changing” meant to substitute one item for another. Since the steelworkers put on their protective gear over their street clothes, they argued that they cannot be considered to have “changed” clothes. The court agreed with this definition, although it pointed out that dictionaries commonly also define changing as “to alter.” The Court therefore ruled in favor of U.S. Steel.

The Chicago class action and employment law lawyers at the Chicago Overtime Law Center are investigating unpaid overtime claims by large manufacturing companies such as Ford, Gm, US Steel, and others for misclassifying employees as managers or assistant managers, forcing employees to work off the clock at business, failing to share all tips, erasing or altering time sheets or time records, pressuring workers not to report or record overtime, and otherwise failing to pay workers for overtime and other wages. If you are the victim these wage theft practices call us at (312) 869-4095 or contact us online.

The Chicago class action attorneys at the Chicago Overtime Law Center have three decades of experience fighting to help employees who are victims of wage, overtime and tip theft by their employers. We have a team of Chicago unpaid overtime lawyers who concentrate on prosecuting state and nationwide class action lawsuits. Our attorneys work out of Chicago and Oak Brook offices and pursue claims for workers all over the Chicago area including Arlington Hts. and Geneva. We protect unpaid workers who haven’t received overtime throughout the Chicago area including in DuPage, Lake, McHenry, Kane and Cook Counties.

Our Bollingbrook and Waukegan overtime lawyers are intimately familiar with the issues that arise during wage claim litigation, and we know the laws that govern overtime cases well. Many employers misclassify employees as being exempt from overtime laws and pay workers salaries instead of hourly wages in order to avoid paying them overtime. Some employers mistakenly classify employees as exempt and others intentionally do so in order to circumvent the law. In either case, workers do not receive the wages they should, and a lawsuit may be the only way to recover their earned wages.

The Chicago Overtime Law Center is based in Chicago, and represents clients throughout the country who have not been paid for the overtime hours that they worked. If you believe that you are owed overtime wages, contact one of our Chicago class action attorneys by phone at (312) 869-4095 or through our online form.