By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, Jan 27 (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 plant that was closely watched by industries that employ workers who wear safety clothing.
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, said there will now be litigation over how the ruling applies in other cases involving different types of equipment, particularly those arising in the meatpacking and poultry-processing industries.
"The fighting will go on," he said.
"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 workstations.
In a statement, U.S. Steel noted that its bargaining agreement with workers has for years specifically addressed the changing clothes period. The court ruling "reaffirms the validity of that approach," the statement said.
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.