Wednesday, September 1, 2010

You are what you wear—at least according to the 6th Circuit and “donning and doffing”

Section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act allows an employer to refuse to pay employees for time spent changing clothes if it has been excluded by custom or practice under a bona fide collective bargaining agreement:

Hours Worked.—In determining for the purposes of sections 206 and 207 of this title the hours for which an employee is employed, there shall be excluded any time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday which was excluded from measured working time during the week involved by the express terms of or by custom or practice under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement applicable to the particular employee.

Yesterday, in Franklin v. Kellogg Company [pdf], the 6th Circuit was presented with the question of whether the donning and doffing of safety equipment constitutes “changing clothes” under section 203(o). At issue was Kellogg’s long-standing policy, adopted by its union contract, of not paying employees for time spent putting on and taking off company-provided uniforms (pants, snap-front shirts bearing the
Kellogg logo and employee’s name, and slip-resistant shoes) and standard safety equipment (hair and beard nets, safety glasses, ear plugs, and bump caps).

After noting that the Department of Labor has changed its mind at least three times on whether safety equipment qualifies as “clothes” under 203(o), the 6th Circuit applied a common sense, dictionary definition to settle the dispute:

A leading dictionary defines “clothes” as “clothing,” which itself is defined as “covering for the human body or garments in general: all the garments and accessories worn by a person at one time.” … Thus, the plain meaning of the word “clothes” is quite expansive. However, because the statute indicates that § 203(o) applies to changing into clothes worn during the workday, Congress was referring to clothes worn for the workday and not simply “ordinary” clothes. … Accordingly, there is no reason to limit the definition of clothes to uniforms, which are made up of pants and shirts…. Instead, “clothes” within the meaning of § 203(o) refers to any “covering for the human body or garments in general,” particularly those worn for work….

Given the context of the workday, § 203(o) clearly applies to the uniform at issue in the case at hand. The remaining items—hair and beard nets, goggles, ear plugs, nonslip shoes, and a bump cap—are also properly construed as clothes within the meaning of § 203(o). Each of these items provides covering for the body. Although they also provide protection to the body, we see no reason to distinguish between protective and non-protective clothes. It is arguable that even the uniform, which is clearly clothing, provides protection to the body. We recognize that there may be some heavier protective equipment than what is at issue here that is not clothing within the meaning of § 203(o). However, the items at issue here are simply “standard safety equipment.”

In other words, because the safety equipment serves as a covering for the body, it qualifies as “clothes” under section 203(o).

Unless you are a unionized employer with a contract that codifies a custom or practice of nonpayment for time spent changing clothes, this opinion is of little practical import. It serves, however, as a good example of a court cutting to the chaff and applying its common sense to arrive at a practical result.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with an analysis of the second part of this opinion (which will be of greater interest to many more employers)—whether Kellogg’s employees are entitled to be paid for time spent walking between the locker room and the time clock.

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