The nation's highest court has agreed to hear an appeal of a ruling involving workers at U.S. Steel's Gary Works in Indiana who want to be paid for the time it takes them to put on the protective clothing their jobs require.
The U.S. Supreme Court case grew out of a 2007 lawsuit filed by Clifton Sandifer and other workers at U.S. Steel's flagship plant.
The workers alleged the steel maker violated federal law by not paying them for the time it took to put on protective clothing in company locker rooms, travel to and from their job stations, shower at the end of their shifts, and wash their clothes once they left the mill.
U.S. Steel only put them on the time clock after they dressed and reached the place in the mill where they work. The workers estimated the activities added at least five hours of overtime to their 40-hour workweek. That's because the Gary plant covers 4,000 acres and some workers have to take buses from their locker rooms to their job site.
Workers at U.S. Steel's Clairton coke plant filed a similar lawsuit at about the same time. That case was settled in 2011 after a federal district court judge in Pittsburgh threw out the workers' requests to be paid for changing clothes and showering.
Terms of the agreement were confidential. But court documents indicate U.S. Steel agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to workers who worked in certain areas and were required to shower at the end of their shift. They were to be paid for time spent travelling between locker rooms and job sites.
U.S. Steel declined comment. So did Melvin Vatz, a Pittsburgh attorney who represented the Clairton workers.
The United Steelworkers union, which represents workers at Gary and Clairton, was not involved in the Clairton case and is not a party to the Gary case. A USW spokesman declined comment.
In the Gary case, the U.S. Supreme Court must decide how to interpret the Fair Labor Standards Act, which covers the activities involved. Among other things, the law states that workers must be paid as soon as they begin a "principal activity." If a worker cannot perform a job without putting on specialized gear, then doing so could be a "principal activity" that would start the time clock.
However, a company does not have to pay a worker for changing clothes if its collective bargaining agreement with a labor union states workers are not to be paid for that activity.
In the Gary case, the district court ruled that putting on safety gear could be a principal activity, so workers should be paid for travelling back and forth between locker rooms and their work sites. U.S. Steel argued that if the labor agreement did not require the company to pay workers for changing clothes, then it shouldn't be required to pay workers for the travel time. The appeals court agreed.
Federal courts have interpreted provisions of the law differently, which makes it the type of case the U.S. Supreme Court is more likely to consider, said Eric Schnapper of the University of Washington law school. He will argue the case for the workers at Gary.
In his petition asking the high court to hear the case, Mr. Schnapper said some courts have ruled that putting on safety gear is the same as changing clothes, including the appeals court that heard the Gary case. It ruled that because of U.S. Steel's labor agreement with the USW, the company did not have to pay workers for the time spent travelling from lockers rooms to job sites.
However, judges of another appeals court ruled differently in the case involving workers at a slaughterhouse and meat processing plant. They ruled the Kevlar gloves and other safety gear those workers were required to wear involved more than changing clothes, so they should be paid for the time involved.
Mr. Schnapper expects the Supreme Court to hear arguments in the case this fall.
Len Boselovic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1941. First Published March 3, 2013 5:00 AM