The first dispute heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this term involved a pair of class action employment lawsuits raising compensation issues for workers who are required to wear protective gear. Today, the high court issued its ruling in these cases, which was generally in favor of the workers. For employers with these types of workers, this stands to dramatically affect their workplace.

Factual Background

The lawsuits were brought against two employers located on opposite ends of the country. IBP, a large producer of fresh beef, pork and related products, employs nearly 1,000 workers in Pasco, Washington. Most of these workers are in the slaughter or processing division, and most are required to wear specialized protective clothing of some type. Barber Foods operates a poultry processing plant in Portland, Maine with about 300 workers—most of whom also must wear specialized protective clothing.

The workers at these facilities filed class action lawsuits asserting that they had not been properly compensated for time worked. Specifically, at issue was whether the workers were entitled to compensation for:

  • The time spent putting on and taking off the safety equipment (so called “donning and doffing”);
  • The time spent waiting to obtain the safety equipment from the company facility;
  • The time spent walking from the locker room to the site where the work was performed (and back to the locker room at the end of the day); and
  • The time spent waiting to remove the safety equipment.

These consolidated cases required the justices to examine the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, which requires minimum wages be paid for all “work”—but does not define the term. The Portal-to-Portal Act, passed about ten years later, attempted to clarify the issue of what constitutes “work” by excluding two activities that had been determined by the courts to be compensable: 1) walking on the employer’s premises to and from the actual place of performance of the principal activity of the employee; and 2) activities that are “preliminary or postliminary” to the principal activity.

Legal Analysis

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that the time spent donning and doffing protective gear is compensable because this activity is “integral and indispensable” to these employees’ principal work activity. Further, the justices held that this activity starts the workday, and thus walking to the place of the work activity after donning the protective gear and walking back to the locker room before doffing are compensable time.

Further, the Court concluded that the time spent waiting to remove the safety gear at the end of the shift is also compensable because the workday continues until the equipment is removed (given that it is integral and indispensable to the employees’ principal activity). The only time the Court found was not compensable was the time spent waiting to obtain the safety equipment before donning—as the workday had not yet begun. IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez (No. 03-1238) and Tum v. Barber Foods, Inc. (No. 04-66), U.S. Supreme Court (November 8, 2005). Click here to view the ruling.

Practical Impact

In assessing this case, David Copus of Ogletree Deakins’ Morristown office noted, “The fact that the Court took only a month to reach a decision, and a unanimous decision at that, indicates that the justices had little trouble with the overtime issues that had caused serious conflicts among the lower courts.”

Bruce Petesch, located in the firm’s Raleigh office, brought a real world perspective to the ruling—given that for three years he has worked closely with a major food company in the poultry industry to come into compliance with the Department of Labor’s position on this same “principle activity” issue. According to Petesch, “The Court’s decision finally resolves an issue which has been the basis for significant litigation over the last several years. For companies in the meat and poultry industries, it will mean major changes operationally and will result in increased costs. But it can be done, and if done right, costs can be contained.”

Additional Information

Should you have any questions about the impact of this ruling, please contact the Ogletree Deakins attorney with whom you normally work or the Client Services Department at 866-287-2576 or via e-mail at

Note: This article was published in the November 8, 2005 issue of the National eAuthority.

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