Nov 4 Steel workers who do their jobs wearing
flame-retardant gear tried to convince the U.S. Supreme Court on
Monday that they should be paid for the time they spend "donning
and doffing" such items before and after their shifts.
In a case with potential impact for unionized workers in
other workplaces, such as poultry processing and meat packing
plants, the Supreme Court struggled to clearly define the
difference between clothing and protective gear.
The distinction matters because federal labor law excludes
"changing clothes" from the time for which unionized employees
must be paid, unless they have negotiated otherwise.
Roughly 800 current and former workers at U.S. Steel's Gary,
Indiana plant, say that flame-retardant jackets and pants, work
gloves, wristlets, hard hats and other items they have to wear
are "personal protective equipment," not clothing.
United States Steel Corp disagrees, saying any
wearable item is clothing. As a result, it says, it should not
have to pay unionized employees for "donning and doffing."
In court arguments on Monday, the Supreme Court justices
reached no firm conclusions. Justice Antonin Scalia said items
such as eye glasses and wristwatches are not clothing. "The
problem is to fashion a standard" that works, he said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Eric Schnapper, the attorney
representing the workers, that "a definition that says
everything that covers the body goes too far."
Narrowing the definition of "clothing" could be costly to
the grocery industry, another sector that could be affected,
Littler Mendelson attorney Tammy McCutchen said in a
friend-of-the-court brief filed with the court on behalf of the
Grocery Manufacturers Association.
If that industry's 2.5 million workers were entitled to back
pay of just 10 minutes a day each, the cost to employers would
be $1.6 million for every thousand affected employees.
"It doesn't sound like much, but it adds up really quick,"
McCutchen told Reuters.
Shares in U.S. Steel were up 4.3 percent at $26.90 each in
moderately bullish New York Stock Exchange trading.
The case is Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation,
U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-417. A decision is likely by late
June, when the court's term ends.