U.S. Supreme Court Turns to History and Webster’s Dictionary to Defeat a Class Action Against U.S. Steel

A minimal underpayment of wages to a single worker can morph into a claim potentially worth millions if magnified across a “class” of many workers subject to the same alleged employment practices.   Targeting larger employers, such “class action” suits have become big business in the courts across the United States, including California.

The success or failure of such a massive claim against United States Steel Corporation fell on the Supreme Court’s chosen definition of the term “changing clothes.”  Sandifer, et al. v. United States Steel Corp. 200 United States Reports (U.S.) 310, 134 Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct.) 870, decided January 27, 2014.

The issue was whether the safety gear employer U.S. Steel required workers to wear in its plants – including flame retardant jacket, protective pants, gloves and hard hat — was actually “clothing” or not. Since their union had made an agreement with the company that time workers spent “changing clothes” at the beginning and end of the day would not be compensated, the employees who brought the suit claimed such protective gear was not “clothing” because these items were largely donned over garments worn for decency. Utilizing Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2nd edition, 1950) (Webster’s Second), the Court broadly defined “clothing” and related terms in favor of employer U.S. Steel, defeating the lawsuit.

U.S. Employment Law History: The case’s outcome required an examination of the history of employment law – and the tensions between organized labor and management — in the United States. Toward the end of the Great Depression, Congress created the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) (FLSA), governing minimum wages for the majority of employees nationwide. The Supreme Court has traditionally interpreted the reach of the FLSA broadly, for example finding that compensable work time includes “all time spent during which an employee is necessarily required to be on the employer’s premises, on duty or at a prescribed workplace” and that such time includes “preliminary activities after arriving … such as putting on aprons and overalls [and] removing shirts.”

Businesses pushed back in the later 1940s. Organized labor had used the Court’s expansive application of the FLSA to bring “portal” lawsuits for industry to compensate employees for time putting on and taking off work-related gear (“portals” being the entrances to mines). Yet, industry convinced Congress and President Truman that such broad application violated “long-established customs, practices, and contracts between employers and employees.” The Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947 thus excluded from mandatorily compensable time “activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to [a worker’s] principal activity or activities …”

The struggle continued. The Labor Department promptly claimed the Portal-to-Portal Act would not apply to (and thus companies would have to pay wages for) time “changing clothes” and “washing up and showering” if those activities were so directly related to the specific work of an employee that they were an “integral part of that employee’s principal activity.” In response, Congress amended the FLSA in 1949 to permit industry and labor to exclude “changing clothes” or “washing” from compensable work time through the terms or customs and practices encompassed by written collective bargaining agreements.  29 United States Code [U.S.C.] section 203(o).

When several workers brought this suit on behalf of some 800 current and former employees, U.S. Steel and the steelworkers union had maintained an agreement excluding “changing clothes” from compensable work time for some 50 years, since 1947.

Definition of “Clothes”:  The employees in this case sought to define “clothes” as excluding items designed and used to protect against workplace hazards, citing a Webster’s definition that limited clothes to items worn for “decency or comfort.”   Observing there is no meaningful distinction between items worn for protection or those worn for comfort, the Court in any event choose to apply another, broader definition of “clothes” from the same dictionary, items intended to cover some part of the human body or just plain “wearing apparel.”

Definition of “Changing”: Again, the employees attempted to use a Webster’s definition that suited their purposes, arguing that “changing clothes” only means substituting one article for another. They thus asserted that since protective gear went over a worker’s street clothes, a person wasn’t really changing into them. The Court again disagreed, using another Webster’s definition for “changing” that embraces two concepts, substituting and altering. Thus, to the Court, donning or doffing protective gear is within the definition of “changing clothes” as the items cover the body and, when worn, alter the person’s overall dress.

Outcome, the Art of a Supreme Court Decision: Wading into the 12 specific items of protective gear involved in this case, the Court found nine of them were “designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress” (including the jacket, pants, hood and hardhat). However, the Court found that three of them – safety glasses, earplugs and a respirator — were not clothing, i.e., “articles of dress.”

This of course created the potential that courts would now have to determine how many minutes were spent putting or taking off the nine items (non-compensable) and how many were spent putting on or removing the other three (compensable). To avoid the need for such judicial micromanagement, the Court artfully punted, ruling that if the changing time involving all 12 items is mostly spent with the nine articles of clothing, then the entire period should be regarded as changing clothes.

While this decision concerned a single workplace practice and whether it was covered in a specific union contract, it does illustrate the great stakes that are involved when a company allegedly makes “little” errors that affect a large number of employees. Such situations can grow into class action claims on a scale that could place a business out of business.   Thus, careful and continuing management attention to the details of employer timekeeping, rest and meal break periods, wage calculations and a host of other workplace procedures is essential.

Please contact attorneys Tim Bowles, Cindy Bamforth or Helena Kobrin for assistance on such critical matters.

May 9, 2014