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Supreme Court Rules on Compensable Time under FLSA

November 13, 2005

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201, et seq. (the “FLSA”), employers must compensate employees for activities performed during the workday.  On November 8, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions in two companion cases involving disputes over whether certain activities were compensable.  Specifically, these cases presented the questions whether employees who are required to wear special protective clothing to perform their jobs must be compensated for the time they spend (1) walking between changing and production areas; and (2) waiting to put on their protective gear at the start of the workday.  The Court concluded that the former activity is compensable under the FLSA while the latter is not.  IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez, No. 03-1238, slip op. (U.S. Nov. 8, 2005); Tum v. Barber Foods, Inc., No. 04-66, slip op. (U.S. Nov. 8, 2005)

Background:

The Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947, §§ 251-262 (the “Portal Act”) amended the FLSA and eliminated employers’ obligations to compensate employees for two categories of activities performed outside the actual workday:  “(1) walking, riding, or traveling to and from the actual place of performance of the principal activity, and (2) activities which are preliminary or postliminary to said principal activity or activities.”  Thus, the “workday” as used in the Portal Act is “the period of time between the commencement and completion on the same workday of an employee’s principal activity or activities.”  In 1956, the Court interpreted the Portal Act and held that the specific acts of putting on (“donning”) and taking off (“doffing”) special protective clothing were “integral and indispensable” to certain employees’ “principal activities” and hence compensable under the FLSA. Steiner v. Mitchell, 350 U.S. 247, 252-53 (1956).

In Alvarez v. IBP, Inc., the employees of a meat-packing plant filed a class action lawsuit seeking compensation for time spent donning and doffing their required protective gear and, in addition, for walking from their locker rooms to the production floor and back.  In Tum v. Barber Foods, Inc., the employees of a poultry processing plant sought compensation for the time they spent donning and doffing required protective gear as well as attendant walking and waiting times.  The waiting time claims were for the time spent waiting to don and to doff the protective gear at the beginning and end of their shifts. 

The Court’s Decisions:

The Court began its analysis by examining the regulatory framework of, and the Court’s prior rulings concerning, the Portal Act, and noted that donning and doffing specialized protective clothing may mark the outer limits of the employees’ continuous workday.  Activities that fall within those parameters are, thus, compensable under the FLSA if they are “integral and indispensable” components of the employees’ “principal activity or activities.”   On the other hand, activities that do not fall within those parameters are subject to the exceptions of the Portal Act.  Thus, “any walking time that occurs after” the employee dons his protective clothing and before the employee doffs that protective clothing is compensable under the FLSA.  However, walking time that occurs before an employee dons or after an employee doffs his protective gear would be not be compensable. 

For similar reasons, employee waiting time to doff protective gear would be compensable under FLSA, but waiting time prior to donning that same gear is not.  The Court, however, did recognize an exception to this rule:  “if an employer requires its workers to report to the changing area at a specific time only to find that no protective gear was available until after some time had elapsed,” then such waiting time might be compensable under the FLSA.

Concluding Thoughts

The IBP and Tum cases obviously arose in specialized factual settings (meat and poultry processing) that, at first glance, may appear to hold little relevance to employers in most industries.  However, the requirements of the FLSA apply to virtually all employers, and these decisions therefore serve as a reminder that all employers should periodically review their policies and procedures for compensating employees with respect to time spent in activities tangential to their regular productive work, and should ensure that those policies comply with the FLSA requirements.