Those Minutes Add Up: Recent Supreme Court Case Highlights Fair Labor Standards Act Compliance

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court unanimously held that under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) time spent walking to and from the production floor after putting on specialized safety gear or clothing was required to be counted as time worked.

IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez [.pdf], No. 03-1238 (November 8, 2005).

Similarly, time spent waiting before removing such items must be counted as time worked for purposes of minimum wage and overtime compensation. On the other hand, time spent waiting before initially putting them on is ordinarily not time worked, unless the wait is caused by the employer’s failure to make the specialized equipment available by the designated time.

At issue in this case was the interpretation of the Portal-to-Portal Act, a 1947 amendment to the FLSA, which is the federal wage and hour law. This Act provides that employers need not count as time worked time spent “walking, riding, or traveling to and from the actual place of performance of the principal activity” and “activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to” the principal activity or activities, occurring either prior to commencement or after cessation of such principal activity or activities on a particular workday.

The Supreme Court reasoned:

Because donning and doffing gear that is “integral and indispensable” to employees’ work is a “principal activity” under the statute [as the Court had held in 1956 in Steiner v. Mitchell], the continuous workday rule mandates that the time the [employees] spend walking to and from the production floor after donning and before doffing, as well as the time spent waiting to doff, are not affected by the Portal-to-Portal Act, and are instead covered by the FLSA.

Viewed most broadly and generally, this decision emphasizes that once the compensable workday begins, with the donning of protective gear or other principal activity, it continues uninterrupted, other than for breaks.

So how significant is this decision?

According to the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the meat industry, for one, has “long insisted that workers’ paid time does not include as much as 30 to 40 minutes per day spent collecting and putting on their gear and walking to their station on the production line. Multiply that by the number of employees and up to three years of potential liability for back pay and you can get a pretty large aggregate dollar amount.

Of course, the specific issue of time spent putting on and taking off specialized safety equipment or clothing arises in only a limited number of employment contexts. However, unaffected employers still can learn something from this decision.

It emphasizes the technical nature of the Fair Labor Standards Act. All employers need to be well acquainted with all the overtime regulations to ensure compliance when calculating overtime. There are other analogous issues involving working time that can be a trap for the unwary, including counting travel time, training time, and on-call time. The overtime exemptions are another trap.

In fact, much litigation time and expense would have been avoided in this case through compliance with the applicable Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division regulations.

See 29 CFR 790.8 – “Principal” activities (“(c) . . . If an employee in a chemical plant, for example, cannot perform his principal activities without putting on certain clothes, changing clothes on the employer’s premises at the beginning and end of the workday would be an integral
part of the employee’s principal activity.”) and 29 CFR 790.6 – Periods within the “workday” unaffected (“Periods of time between the commencement of the employee’s first principal activity and the completion of his last
principal activity on any workday must be included in the computation of hours worked to the same extent as would be required if the Portal Act had not been enacted.”)

See High Court Backs Workers in Pay Dispute

See also, Index to Wage and Hour Regulations

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