By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court handed a victory to employers on Monday by ruling that a group of unionized steel workers does not have to be paid for the time they spend "donning and doffing" safety gear before and after their shifts.
The unanimous ruling came in a case involving workers at a U.S. Steel Corp
The decision will make it harder for unionized workers to seek pay for time spent changing clothes before and after work if it is not specifically addressed during labor negotiations. Such claims have been the subject of widespread litigation nationwide.
Federal labor law excludes "changing clothes" from the time for which unionized employees must be paid, unless they have negotiated otherwise. The Supreme Court clarified on Monday that safety gear generally fits within that definition, resolving a question that had split lower courts.
"A good bit of the uncertainty was cleared away," said Lawrence DiNardo, an attorney for U.S. Steel.
The workers' lawyer, Eric Schnapper, could not immediately be reached for comment.
"DONNING AND DOFFING"
Roughly 800 current and former workers at U.S. Steel's Gary, Indiana, plant said flame-retardant jackets and pants, work gloves, wristlets, hard hats and other items they have to wear are "personal protective equipment," not clothing.
U.S. Steel disagreed, saying any wearable item is clothing. As a result, it said it should not have to pay unionized employees for "donning and doffing."
Writing on behalf of the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said the time spent putting on safety gear was not subject to compensation because it was not sufficiently different from "changing clothes."
He mentioned such items as pants, hardhats and leggings as "commonly regarded as articles of dress."
Scalia conceded that safety glasses, ear plugs and respirators, which the workers also wear, are not generally viewed as clothes, but he said a ruling separating different types of items would create a problem for judges handling such cases.
It is unlikely that Congress intended to "convert federal judges into time-study professionals," Scalia wrote. He referred to a lower court ruling that said the time spent putting on safety glasses and earplugs was "minimal" and that respirators are put on as needed at work stations.
Various industry groups, mainly in the food industry, had backed U.S. Steel.
If backdated claims had been allowed, it would have been "devastating to many employers," the Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a friend-of-the court brief.
The case is Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-417.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker and Carlyn Kolker; Editing by Howard Goller, Dan Grebler and James Dalgleish)