Fourth Circuit Finds Employers Do Not Have to Pay for Donning & Doffing Time That Was Subject to Collective Bargaining

In Sepulveda v. Allen Family Foods, Inc., the Fourth Circuit held that the company does not have to pay its employees for time spent donning and doffing because it was the subject of collective bargaining between the union—the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27—and the company. Specifically, the issue in this case was whether time spent donning and doffing protective gear at a unionized poultry processing plant constituted “changing clothes” within the meaning of Section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. This section provides that that an employer does not have to pay its employees for time “changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday ... by the express terms of or by custom or practice under a bona fide collective bargaining agreement.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(o).

The employees were required to wear steel-toe shoes, a smock, plastic apron, safety glasses, ear plugs, bump cap, hair net, rubber gloves and sleeves, and arm shields. In addition to donning and doffing these items at the beginning and end of each work day, employees were also required to sanitize their gear by dipping their gloves into a tank, splashing the liquid solutions onto their aprons, and stepping through a footbath before and after working and during extended breaks. The company had a long standing practice of paying its employees for time on the production line only.

In 2002, the union proposed that its members be paid for twelve minutes of donning and doffing time per day. The company rejected the union’s offer and continued to pay its employees for production line work only. In 2007, three production employees filed a putative collective action in which they were joined by approximately 250 current and former production workers.

The employees argued that Section 203(o) was inapplicable because the items were not “clothes” and the act of donning and doffing them was not “changing.” For example, they argued that “clothes” encompassed “regular undergarments and outerwear,” i.e., street clothes, and excluded protective safety items in the workplace. The court found the employees’ “cramped” and “narrow” definition of “clothes” and “changing” unpersuasive, reasoning that the purpose behind Section 203(a) was to leave such donning and doffing activities to the collective-bargaining process.

The court noted that Congress recognized that employers and unions are in a better position than either courts or agencies to “thresh out” how much compensable time should be allocated for “changing clothes.” Additionally, the court observed that collective bargaining allows employers and unions to reach agreements that leave both sides more satisfied than a government or court-imposed solution and that unions may be willing to trade higher wages, enhanced benefits, or improved working conditions in exchange for compensation for changing clothes. Notably, in stark contrast to this decision, the Ninth Circuit reached a different result in Alvarez v. IBP, Inc., 339 F.3d 894 (9th Cir. 2003), aff’d on other grounds, 546 U.S. 21 (2005), holding that protective items worn in the beef and pork industries are not “clothes” within the meaning of Section 203(o).

This entry was written by Steven Kaplan.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.