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SCOTUS to hear Indiana steelworkers’ case Monday

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This question arising in an Indiana labor case will be before the Supreme Court of the United States on Monday: What does “changing clothes” mean?

That language in Section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act has been interpreted differently in federal circuits around the nation. The case before the justices, Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., 12-417, arrives with a 7th Circuit holding that the acts of changing clothes and walking to work stations are not compensable under Section 203(o).

Clifton Sandifer and other workers claimed that U.S. Steel was in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act by not compensating them for the time they spend changing into safety gear and walking to their work stations. The 7th Circuit rejected that argument, affirming the order of Judge Robert Miller of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division.

Alison Fox, who practices primarily in labor law at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP in South Bend, is following the case but is not involved. She said that while the question is a narrow one, it could resolve different interpretations among circuits, some of which consider safety gear to be clothing, for instance, while others don’t.

Likewise, some circuits, including the 7th, hold that the statute addresses the question, while several other circuits have ruled the question is one that may be negotiated between employers and unions.

Fox said the varying circuit rulings have resulted in some companies that do business nationwide operating under different practices from region to region. The federal Department of Labor also has changed its interpretation over the years, she noted.

“The whole point of the provision we’re talking about is to create some certainty,” Fox said.

If the Supreme Court affirms the 7th Circuit, Fox said it could invalidate provisions of collective bargaining agreements that compensate workers for the time they spend changing or washing clothes. If the court reverses, a result could be that unionized workers can negotiate for pay during such times.

“A wide range of industries would be affected” by any ruling, she said. “Because it involves common types of safety gear in many industries, I think it will have a wide-ranging impact.”


 

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