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Supreme Court Rules Employees Must Be Paid For Walking Time After Donning And Before Doffing Special Gear

Date

November 1, 2005

Read Time

3 minutes

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On November 8, 2005, the United States Supreme Court in IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez unanimously ruled that employees must be paid for time spent walking to and from their workstations after donning and before doffing special protective gear (although not ordinary work clothes or common gear such as hardhats or goggles). The decision was closely watched by the poultry and meatpacking industries, but has implications for employers in other industries and underscores the risk in excluding time from an employee's workday for pay purposes.

Action Item(s)

Ensure that your employees are properly compensated for all working time. Besides the time spent walking after donning and before doffing of special protective gear — as discussed in Alvarez — be sure that you understand and correctly apply the rules associated with other parts of the workday, such as on-call or standby time, overtime, and travel time.

Discussion

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes wage and hour requirements for certain categories of employees. It was initially interpreted to require employers to compensate employees for the time necessarily spent walking from time clocks to their work stations. However, Congress passed the Portal-to-Portal Act in 1947, which excepted from FLSA coverage two activities that had been previously treated as compensable under relevant case law:

  1. Walking on the employer's premises to and from the actual place of performance of the principal activity of the employee, and
  2. Activities that are "preliminary" or "postliminary" to that principal activity.

Eight years later, the Supreme Court decided Steiner v. Mitchell , 350 U.S. 247

(1956), and held that the term "principal activity or activities" under the Portal-to-Portal Act embraces all activities which are an "integral and indispensable part of the principal activities." Thus, under Steiner , activities such as the donning and doffing of specialized protective gear, which are "performed either before or after the regular work shift, on or off the production line, are compensable under the Portal-to-Portal provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act if those activities are an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workers are employed."

Against this background, the Supreme Court in IBP v. Alvarez was called upon to decide whether time spent walking to and from workstations after donning and before doffing special protective gear is excluded from the FLSA. The Court unanimously concluded that it is not.

The IBP v. Alvarez decision resolved two consolidated cases. The first case involved production workers at a Washington meat processing plant. The production workers' pay was based upon the time spent cutting and packing meat. Pay began with the first piece of meat, and ended with the last piece. Production workers were required to wear a variety of protective equipment for their hands, arms, torsos, and legs, including chain link metal aprons.

The employees filed a class action to recover compensation for pre-production and post-production work, including the time spent donning and doffing the required protective gear and walking between the locker rooms and the production floor before and after their assigned shifts.

The second case involved employees on production lines at a poultry processing plant in Maine, who also were required to wear protective clothing. The employees were paid by the hour, beginning from the time they punched in at time clocks located at the entrances to the production floor. The plaintiffs alleged that their employer failed to compensate them for time spent donning and doffing protective gear, waiting for such gear to be issued, and walking to the production floor after donning that gear.

The Supreme Court concluded that, under Steiner , employees should be compensated for any activity that is "integral and indispensable" to the "principal activity" of the workplace. Consequently, if applying and removing protective gear is a "principal activity" related to working in a meat processing plant, then the walking that occurs after dressing and before undressing should be compensated.

However, the poultry plant employees also complained that they should be compensated for the time spent waiting to obtain their protective gear prior to dressing. The Supreme Court rejected this argument and noted that such waiting time


Filed under: Employment & Executive Compensation

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