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Dictionaries from the era of 29 U.S.C.S. § 203(o)’s enactment indicate that “clothes” denotes items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress. That is what the U.S. Supreme Court held to be the meaning of the word as used in § 203(o). Although a statute may make a departure from the natural and popular acceptation of language, nothing in the text or context of § 203(o) suggests anything other than the ordinary meaning of “clothes."
Petitioner Sandifer and others filed a putative collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, seeking backpay for time spent donning and doffing pieces of protective gear that they assert respondent United States Steel Corporation required workers to wear because of hazards at its steel plants. U.S. Steel contended that this donning-and-doffing time, which would otherwise be compensable under the Act, was non-compensable under a provision of its collective-bargaining agreement with petitioners' union. The District Court granted U.S. Steel summary judgment in pertinent part, holding that petitioners' donning and doffing constituted “changing clothes” under §203(o). It also assumed that any time spent donning and doffing items that were not “clothes” was “de minimis” and hence noncompensable. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.
Was the time spent by petitioners in donning and doffing protective gear compensable under § 3(o) of Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S.C.S. § 203(o))?
The Supreme Court held that the time spent donning and doffing protective gear were not compensable under § 3(o) of Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S.C.S. § 203(o)), as the activities were “changing clothes” under § 3(o) and apparently noncompensable under the collective-bargaining agreement. According to the Court, the word “clothes” as used in 29 U.S.C.S. § 203(o) denoted items that were both designed and used to cover the body and were commonly regarded as articles of dress. Despite the usual meaning of “changing clothes,” the broader statutory context made it plain that time spent in changing clothes included time spent in altering dress. The employees' donning and doffing of the protective gear, which included a flame-retardant jacket, pair of pants, and hood, a hardhat, a snood, wristlets, work gloves, leggings, and metatarsal boots, qualified as “changing clothes” within the meaning of § 203(o) because the items were both designed and used to cover the body and were commonly regarded as articles of dress. The safety glasses, earplugs, and respirator did not satisfy the standard because they were not commonly regarded as articles of dress. However, the time expended by each employee donning and doffing safety glasses and earplugs was minimal. The time spent donning and doffing the respirators was part of an employee’s normal workday and thus beyond the scope of § 203(o) because they were kept and put on as needed at job locations.