Tag Archives: Personal Protection Equipment

6th Cir.: Although Changing Into PPE At Food-Processing Plant Is “Changing Clothes” and Excluded Under 203(o), It Is A Principle Activity And Begins The “Continuous Workday”

Franklin v. Kellogg Co.

This case was before the Sixth Circuit on appeal from the order at the court below granting Defendant summary judgment in all respects with regard to Plaintiff’s claims that she was entitled to be paid for changing into required personal protection equipment (“PPE”) each day, before she could perform their work on Defendant’s plant floor.  The Court affirmed the lower court’s holding that time spent changing into the PPE could be properly excluded by continued practice under 203(0), but remanded the case to determine whether there was significant time the that elapsed after the donning of the PPE, before Plaintiff was put “on the clock,” because such time was compensible under the “continuous workday” if it was not deemed de minimus.

The Court reasoned:

“B. Post-Donning/Pre-Doffing Walking Time

Franklin argues that if we conclude that her time spent donning and doffing the uniform and equipment is excluded under § 203(o), she is still entitled to compensation for her time spent walking between the locker room and the time clock, because those activities are “principal activities.” Under the “continuous workday” rule, “the ‘workday’ is generally defined as ‘the period between the commencement and completion on the same workday of an employee’s principal activity or activities.’ “ IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez, 546 U.S. 21, 29 (2004) (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 790.6(b)). In addition, “during a continuous workday, any walking time that occurs after the beginning of the employee’s first principal activity and before the end of the employee’s last principal activity is … covered by the FLSA,” and must be compensated. Id. at 37. Principal activities are those that are an integral and indispensable part of the activities which the employee is employed to perform. See Steiner v. Mitchell, 350 U.S. 247, 256 (1956).

1. Does Exclusion Under § 203(o) Affect Whether an Activity is a Principal Activity?

One court recently explained that “[t]he courts have taken divergent views” on the issue of whether activities deemed excluded under § 203(o) may still constitute “principal activities.” In re Tyson Foods, Inc., 694 F.Supp.2d 1358, 1370 (M.D.Ga.2010). Some courts have concluded that time that is excluded under § 203(o) may still be a “principal activity,” because § 203(o) only addresses the compensability of the time, not whether it is integral and indispensable. See, e.g., id. at 1371 (“After considering both of these positions, the Court concludes that § 203(o) only relates to the compensability of time spent donning, doffing, and washing of the person and that it does not mean that § 203(o) tasks cannot be considered principal activities that start the continuous workday.”); Andrako v. U.S. Steel Corp., 632 F.Supp.2d 398, 413 (W.D.Pa.2009) (“Section 203(o) relates to the compensability of time spent donning, doffing, and washing in the collective-bargaining process. It does not render such time any more or less integral or indispensable to an employee’s job.”); Gatewood v. Koch Foods of Miss., LLC, 569 F.Supp.2d 687, 702 (S.D.Miss.2008) (“Although the act of ‘changing clothes’ itself is barred based on § 203(o) …, the activities that occur after changing into sanitary gear and before changing out of sanitary gear are not impacted by the defense.”); Figas, 2008 WL 4170043, at *20 (“[T]he character of donning and doffing activities is not dependent upon whether such activities are excluded pursuant to a collective-bargaining agreement.”). In contrast, some courts-including the district court presiding over the instant case-have concluded that “once an activity has been deemed a section 3(o) activity, it cannot be considered a principal activity.” Sisk v. Sara Lee Corp., 590 F.Supp.2d 1001, 1011 (W.D.Tenn.2008); see also Salazar v. Butterball, LLC, No. 08-cv-02071-MSK-CBS, 2009 WL 6048979, at * 14 (D.Colo. Dec. 3, 2009) (following Sisk); Hudson v. Butterball, LLC, No. 08-5071-CV-SW-RED, 2009 WL 3486780, at *4 (W.D.Mo. Oct. 14, 2009) (“Because time [plaintiff] spent sanitizing, donning, and doffing is excluded from hours worked under § 203(o), the walking time did not follow or precede a principal work activity, and therefore is not compensable.”). Although the latter position was consistent with the 2007 Opinion Letter, the June 16 Interpretation rejected that position and concluded that “clothes changing that is covered by § 203(o) may be a principal activity.” Compare 2007 Opinion Letter with June 16 Interp.

We agree with the courts that have taken the position that compensability under § 203(o) is unrelated to whether an activity is a “principal activity.” Accordingly, we must consider whether time spent donning and doffing the standard equipment and uniform is integral and indispensable to Franklin’s job.

2. Integral and Indispensable

Kellogg asserts that even though it requires its employees to wear these items, changing into them is not “integral and indispensable” under the FLSA. In Steiner, the Supreme Court concluded that changing into protective gear before beginning the shift and showering and changing out of the protective gear at the end of the shift was an integral and indispensable part of employment at a battery-manufacturing plant. 350 U.S. at 256 (“[I]t would be difficult to conjure up an instance where changing clothes and showering are more clearly an integral and indispensable part of the principal activity of the employment than in the case of these employees.”) The Court did not address whether “changing clothes and showering under normal conditions” was integral and indispensable to the principal activity of work, and it did not explicitly hold that changing clothes and showering can only be integral and indispensable when the working environment was toxic or lethal. See id. at 249, 256. Nonetheless, at least one court applying Steiner has made that distinction. See Gorman v. Consol. Edison Corp., 488 F.3d 586, 594 (2d Cir.2007). In Gorman, the Second Circuit held that donning and doffing of protective gear-helmet, safety glasses, and steel-toed boots-was not integral and indispensable to employment at a nuclear power plant. Id. It distinguished Steiner because “the environment of the battery plant could not sustain life-given the toxic substances in liquid, solid, powder, and vapor form (and in the dust of the air) that ‘permeate[d] the entire [battery] plant and everything and everyone in it.’ “ Id. at 593 (quoting Steiner, 350 U.S. at 249) (alterations in original). It interpreted Steiner narrowly for the proposition “that when work is done in a lethal atmosphere, the measures that allow entry and immersion into the destructive element may be integral to all work done there.” Id. However, under Gorman, when such a lethal environment is not present and the gear is not literally required for entry into the plant, donning and doffing gear is not integral.

The Second Circuit’s position appears to be unique. The Ninth and Eleventh Circuits have both interpreted Steiner less narrowly. For example, relying on 29 C.F.R. § 790.8(c), the Ninth Circuit explained that “ ‘where the changing of clothes on the employer’s premises is required by law, by rules of the employer, or by the nature of the work,’ the activity may be considered integral and indispensable to the principal activities.” Ballaris v. Wacker Siltronic Corp., 370 F.3d 901, 910 (9th Cir.2004), quoting Mitchell v. King Packing Co., 350 U.S. 260, 262-63 (1956) (holding that changing into and out of plant uniforms was integral and indispensable to the principal activities because the employer required its employees to wear the uniforms and doing so was performed for the benefit of the company); see also Alvarez, 339 F.3d at 902-03 (“To be ‘integral and indispensable,’ an activity must be necessary to the principal work performed and done for the benefit of the employer.”). Similarly, the Eleventh Circuit held that the following three factors are relevant to the issue of whether an activity is integral and indispensable: “(1) whether the activity is required by the employer; (2) whether the activity is necessary for the employee to perform his or her duties; and whether the activity primarily benefits the employer.” Bonilla v. Baker Concrete Constr., Inc., 487 F.3d 1340, 1344 (11th Cir.2007) (concluding that time spent going through security screening made mandatory by the FAA was not integral and indispensable because it was not for the benefit of the employer). We follow the reasoning of Ballaris and Bonilla.

Under the broader interpretation of integral and indispensable, donning and doffing the uniform and equipment is both integral and indispensable. First, the activity is required by Kellogg. Second, wearing the uniform and equipment primarily benefits Kellogg. Certainly, the employees receive protection from physical harm by wearing the equipment. However, the benefit is primarily for Kellogg, because the uniform and equipment ensures sanitary working conditions and untainted products. Because Franklin would be able to physically complete her job without donning the uniform and equipment, unlike the plaintiffs in Steiner, it is difficult to say that donning the items are necessary for her to perform her duties. Nonetheless, considering these three factors, we conclude that donning and doffing the uniform and standard equipment at issue here is a principal activity. See IBP, Inc., 546 U.S. at 37 (“[A]ny activity that is ‘integral and indispensable’ to a ‘principal activity’ is itself a ‘principal activity.’ ”) Accordingly, under the continuous workday rule, Franklin may be entitled to payment for her post-donning and pre-donning walking time. Because there are questions of fact as to the length of time it took her to walk from the changing area to the time clock and whether that time was de minimis, however, we reverse and remand to the district court for further consideration of this issue.”

To read the entire opinion, click here.

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D.Colo.: Time Spent By Police Officers Donning And Doffing Their Uniforms And Equipment Is Compensable, Because It Is Integral And Indispensable To Their Police Duties

Rogers v. City and County of Denver

This case was before the Court on the parties’ respective motions for summary judgment.  Plaintiffs made several claims for unpaid wages based on a variety of “off-the-clock” claims.  Although the Court denied the parties’ motions with respect to most of the claims–either because the record was not fully developed, or because there were issues of fact–it held that the donning and doffing of uniforms and equipment by certain officers was compensable time.

“The first claim seeks compensation for time spent putting on and taking off the police uniform and equipment required for conducting police activity. For convenience of analysis, this claim is considered as it applies to patrol officers. The DPD Operations Manual prescribes the basic uniform to be worn on duty. It consists of a uniform shirt, uniform trousers, trouser belt, socks and authorized footwear. (DPD Op. Manual § 111.02.) A uniformed officer is generally required to carry a metal badge and nameplate, current DPD identification card, a valid Colorado driver’s license, and a standard uniform belt (“duty belt”) containing an authorized holster and firearm, ammunition case and ammunition, handcuffs and handcuff case, department issued tear gas and holder, flashlight, baton ring and belt “keepers.” (Id. § 111.03.) Uniformed officers are not required to wear basic hats or reflective apparel or carry batons, but officers must have those items available at all times. (Id. §§ 111.02(1), 111.02(12) & 111.03(13)). The Operations Manual describes particular situations in which basic hats and reflective apparel must be worn. The wearing of ballistic vests is encouraged, but not required. (Id. § 111.05(2)(e)).

The DPD does not require that donning and doffing the basic uniform take place at the assigned work station. Some district headquarters have storage lockers and rooms available for use at the officer’s individual choice. Some district buildings are too small and the officers must report in full uniform. The City argues that the option to put on and take off the uniform at home or elsewhere distinguishes this case from precedents established in the context of the meat industry and other hazardous occupations.

The option to change away from the duty station is not determinative. The principal activity of the patrol officers is policing the community. The police uniform is not “clothing” in any ordinary sense. It is the visible sign of authority and an essential element of the officer’s ability to command compliance with his commands and directives. It is analogous to the judicial robe. The uniform includes the equipment that are the tools that enable the officer to use physical force, including deadly force, for the protection of himself and others as circumstances require.

The City argues that the Plaintiffs’ clothes changing activities are excluded from compensation under 29 U.S.C. § 203(o). That section provides:

Hours Worked.-In determining for the purposes of sections 206 and 207 of this title the hours for which an employee is employed, there shall be excluded any time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday which was excluded from measured working time during the week involved by the express terms of or by custom or practice under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement applicable to the particular employee.

CBAs between the City and the Denver Police Protective Association have been in effect since January 1, 1996. DPD officers have never been compensated for donning and doffing their uniforms and personal equipment. The City contends that this history of non-compensation shows an established custom or practice under the CBAs.

That argument is not persuasive.  Silence in collective bargaining is not the equivalent of a custom or practice of non-compensability.

In December 1985, the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued a Wage and Hour Opinion Letter, stating that the time spent by a uniformed police officer donning and doffing the required uniform was not compensable time under the FLSA, where a collective bargaining agreement between a city and the union had no express provision regarding the compensability of clothes-changing time and there had been no custom or practice between the parties to consider such clothes changing time compensable. Wage & Hour Opinion Letter, Dec. 30, 1985, 1985 WL 1087351, Def.’s Ex. A-98. That opinion letter is not persuasive, but may be considered with respect to the issue of willfulness. Similarly, Wage & Hour Advisory Memorandum No.2006-2 dated May 31, 2006 (opining that changing into gear is not a principal activity if employees have the option and the ability to change at home) is relevant only to the issue of willfulness.

The judicially-created de minimis rule provides an exception to the FLSA’s requirement that all work be compensated.  There are genuine issues of material fact regarding the time and effort required to don and doff the DPD uniform and protective gear. The City’s de minimis defense is a factual issue for trial.

While donning and doffing the patrol officers uniform and equipment is compensable time under the FLSA as activity that is integral and indispensable to their police duties, the continuous work day does not begin or end with that activity. The plaintiffs are not asking for time spent commuting for those officers who chose to change at home. This ruling is applicable only to the uniformed officers on official duty. The facts concerning wearing uniforms and equipment during secondary employment are not adequately presented in the papers filed.   Similarly there is no clear evidentiary record concerning detectives and other non-uniformed officers.”

This decision appears to be in direct conflict with the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision discussed here, which held that time spent donning and doffing police uniforms and equipment was not compensable, because officers had the option of doing it at home.

Click here to read the entire decision.

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5th Cir.: Notwithstanding The Language of § 203(o), Actual Bargaining Is Not Necessary In Order To Find That A “Custom or Practice” Exists Under § 203(o); Pattern Of Non-Compensation Sufficient

Allen v. McWane Inc.

This collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), on behalf of hourly employees of McWane, Inc., sought payment for pre-and post-shift time spent donning and doffing protective gear.  The district court granted summary judgment on the basis that at each plant there existed a custom or practice of not compensating pre- or post- shift time spent putting on and taking off protective gear.  Despite the clear language of the statute, the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that absent any evidence that the parties had ever actually discussed or agreed during collective bargaining, that such time would not be compensable, any employer who has consistently failed to compensate employees for otherwise compensable work time may utilize the limited exception of § 203(o), thus barring employees’ claims seeking payment for such time.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s arguments based on the plain reading of § 203(o), stating, “Allen argues that here the facts do not establish a ‘custom or practice under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement’ that would make changing time non-compensable.  Allen claims that compensation for the pre- and post-shift changing time is a pre-existing right under the FLSA, subject to exclusion only if it has been affirmatively bargained away in CBA negotiations; i.e., negotiation of whether to pay for pre- and post-shift changing time must be shown before the court may conclude that there was a custom or practice as provided in § 203(o). According to Allen, there has been no acquiescence or waiver here because the union representatives did not have knowledge of the right to compensation for this pre- and post-shift changing time, nor any knowledge of or acquiescence to a policy of nonpayment for that time.

This court addressed a related issue in Bejil: whether employees had a right to compensation for changing time where the union and the employer had discussed that very question during CBA negotiations, but the CBA ultimately remained silent on the matter. 269 F.3d at 480. We concluded that such silence in the CBA, after the parties negotiated over the matter, resulted in a “custom or practice” of not compensating the employees for the changing time, and therefore § 203(o) barred claims for back wages for such time. Id. Here, unlike in Bejil, there was no discussion of whether McWane should compensate the Allen plaintiffs for such clothes changing time.

The Third and Eleventh Circuits have considered the specific question of whether § 203(o) requires the employees and employer to have discussed the issue of compensation for pre- and post-shift changing time, where the CBA is silent on the issue, in order to find that a custom or practice of nonpayment existed pursuant to a CBA. The Third and Eleventh Circuits concluded that it was not necessary for the issue to have been raised in negotiations. Anderson v. Cagle’s, Inc., 488 F.3d 945, 958-59 (11th Cir.2007); Turner v. City of Philadelphia, 262 F.3d 222, 226 (3d Cir.2001).

Turner presented the following uncontested facts: (1) Philadelphia had not compensated corrections officers for uniform change time for over 30 years; (2) every CBA between Philadelphia and the officers had been silent as to compensation for change time; (3) the union president proposed at labor management meetings with Philadelphia’s Labor Relations Administrator that change time be made compensable, but the union did not make this request in formal CBA negotiations; (4) the union did, however, ask for and receive a uniform maintenance allowance; and (5) the union never filed a grievance or demanded arbitration based on the non-compensability of change time. Turner, 262 F.3d at 225.

The Turner plaintiffs made an argument similar to the one articulated by Allen, that “a ‘custom or practice’ of non-compensability cannot come into being unless (1) the issue of compensability is specifically raised in formal collective bargaining negotiations, and then (2) dropped by the negotiators.” Id. at 226. Rejecting this approach, the Third Circuit held that the plaintiffs and their union had acquiesced to the municipal government’s thirty-year policy of not compensating for changing time. Id. at 227. The court explained:

We think that plaintiffs interpret the phrase “custom or practice under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement” too narrowly, placing undue emphasis on the clause “under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement” while virtually reading the clause “custom or practice” out of § 203(o). In essence, plaintiffs construe “custom or practice under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement” as “custom or practice established through formal collective bargaining negotiations.” To the contrary, we view the phrase as simply restating the well-established principle of labor law that a particular custom or practice can become an implied term of a labor agreement through a prolonged period of acquiescence.  Id. at 226. The Turner court also rejected the argument that the plaintiffs had an antecedent right to payment under the FLSA such that they could not acquiesce to non-compensation without the issue being negotiated, noting that § 203(o) itself defines what work time is encompassed by that right to payment. Id. at 226-27.

In Anderson, the employer had not compensated the employees for time spent donning and doffing protective gear for approximately ten years. 488 F.3d at 958. Additionally, the court assumed for purposes of its decision that every CBA during the relevant time period had been silent as to compensation for changing time, and assumed that the parties had never discussed the policy. Id. at 958. The Anderson court followed Turner, also rejecting the argument that a custom or practice under § 203(o) cannot exist unless the parties negotiated about the non-compensation policy. Id. at 958-59. “Relying again on a common sense understanding of the statute’s language, we believe that a policy concerning compensation … for clothes changing, written or unwritten, in force or effect at the time a CBA was executed satisfies § 203(o)‘s requirement of a ‘custom or practice under a bona fide’ CBA.” Id. “Absence of negotiations cannot in this instance equate to ignorance of the policy. Rather, it demonstrates acquiescence to it.” Id. at 959.

The Eleventh Circuit noted that the issue in Anderson was not controlled by the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Hoover v. Wyandotte Chemicals Corporation, 455 F.2d 387 (5th Cir.1972). In Hoover, another action to recover overtime pay under the FLSA, this court held that employees were not entitled to additional compensation for the extra eight to ten minutes of clothes changing time that they requested during collective bargaining negotiations, but which was not incorporated into the executed CBA. Id. at 388. The custom and practice of the employer for approximately fifteen years had been to pay for fifteen minutes of changing time. During the most recent CBA negotiations, pay for 23-25 minutes of time had been requested but not adopted. Hoover held that the request did not change the custom or practice, which was to pay only for fifteen minutes of changing time. Id. at 389. Although the employer had agreed to pay for changing time, where the employees raised the issue during CBA negotiations but there was no change in practice by the employer or change to the CBA on the issue, the relevant custom of non-payment for clothes changing time over fifteen minutes remained unaltered.

Allen both criticizes the reasoning of Turner and Anderson and tries to distinguish them. Allen observes that in Anderson the plaintiffs did not contend that they lacked notice of the relevant compensation policy, whereas here the employees and their union representatives were unaware of the potential for compensation under the FLSA. 488 F.3d at 959. However, neither Turner nor Anderson address the employees’ awareness of the law, much less find it to be a controlling factor in their holding. Anderson merely observed that the plaintiffs were aware that the company had a policy of not paying for pre- and post-shift clothes changing time. Id. Similar facts were present in Turner. 262 F.3d at 225. Both courts concluded that silence by the employees and their union as to the non-compensability of this time when the CBAs were executed meant that a custom or practice of nonpayment was established pursuant to a CBA, and thus the time was not to be calculated as “hours worked” under § 203(o).

Allen relies heavily on the reasoning employed by Kassa v. Kerry, Inc., 487 F.Supp.2d 1063, 1071 (D.Minn.2007). In Kassa, the defendant moved for summary judgment based on § 203(o). The court voiced its agreement with Turner, and determined that § 203(o) may apply even where non-payment for changing time was never raised in negotiations. The court then identified three elements as essential to determine the existence of a “custom or practice” under § 203(o): time, knowledge, and acquiescence. Id. at 1070-71 (relying on Detroit & Toledo Shore Line R.R. Co. v. United Transp. Union, 396 U.S. 142, 154 (1969)). Kassa assigned the burden to the defendant to show that “its policy of non-compensation for clothes-changing time lasted for a sufficiently long time, with sufficient knowledge and acquiescence by [the] employees, that the policy became an implicit term-a ‘custom or practice’-under the CBA.” Id. at 1071. In Kassa, the record established that the non-payment by defendant had occurred for six years and the union had never complained about non-payment when executing the CBA. Id. The district court found this insufficient as a matter of law to establish a custom or practice, and denied summary judgment.

Allen also relies on the Supreme Court’s statement in Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight System, Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 740 (1981), that “FLSA rights cannot be abridged by contract or otherwise waived….” Barrentine addressed whether employees at a union-organized plant operating under a CBA could sue their employer for violations of the minimum wage provisions of the FLSA. The CBA in Barrentine required the employees to submit the claim to a grievance committee; when they did so, the committee rejected their claims. The Court held that the right to sue for the violation of the FLSA could not be abridged or waived. Id. at 740. There is a significant distinction between the minimum wage provision at issue in Barrentine and the application of § 203(o) in the instant case: the FLSA rights at issue in Barrentine are independent of the collective bargaining process. Id. at 745. By contrast, under § 203(o) the right to be paid for pre- or post-shift changing time may be abridged by contract-a bona fide CBA. See also Livadas v. Bradshaw, 512 U.S. 107, 131-32 (1994) (addressing question of meaningful bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act, referring to § 203(o) of the FLSA as an example of a “narrowly drawn opt-out provision,” and noting employees have full protection of the minium standard “absent any agreement for something different”).

We are persuaded by the reasoning of the Third and Eleventh Circuits, and join them in holding that even when negotiations never included the issue of non-compensation for changing time, a policy of non-compensation for changing time that has been in effect for a prolonged period of time, and that was in effect at the time a CBA was executed, satisfies § 203(o) ‘s requirement of “a custom or practice under a bona fide” CBA. See Anderson, 488 F.3d at 958-59 (policy of non-compensation had been in place for at least ten years); Turner, 262 F.3d at 226 (policy of non-compensation had been in place for thirty years). In such instances, regardless of whether the parties negotiated regarding compensation for changing time, acquiescence of the employees may be inferred. By contrast, where there have been no relevant negotiations and the facts do not demonstrate that a policy of non-compensation for changing time has been in effect for a prolonged period of time, other evidence of knowledge and acquiescence by the employees will be required. See Gatewood v. Koch Foods of Miss., 569 F.Supp.2d 687, 698-700 (S.D.Miss.2008) (holding that even in the absence of a long-standing tradition of non-compensation or negotiations for compensation of time spent changing clothes, “when employees and union representatives are conclusively aware of the facts surrounding compensation policies for changing clothes at the beginning and end of each workday, and reach an agreement under a CBA that does not compensate employees for the time, a ‘practice’ exists under the CBA sufficient to invoke the § 203(o) defense”).

Thus, as long as there was a company policy of non-compensation for time spent changing for a prolonged period of time-allowing the court to infer that the union had knowledge of and acquiesced to the employer’s policy-and a CBA existed, the parties need not have explicitly discussed such compensation when negotiating the CBA. McWane “only need prove that the parties had a ‘custom or practice’ of non-compensation under the agreement.” Bejil, 269 F.3d at 479. It is undisputed that McWane has never compensated its employees for changing time, going as far back as 1965. After more than forty years of non-compensation, we may safely infer that McWane’s employees had knowledge of and acquiesced to the policy of non-compensation. Therefore, we conclude that McWane has demonstrated a “custom” of non-compensation for changing time.”

Interestingly, the Court noted that the parties had stipulated that the time spent donning and doffing personal protective equipment was synonymous with “changing clothes” and thus potentially waivable, creating the narrow issue before the Court.  Inasmuch as there are recent decisions from around the country falling on both sides of this issue (i.e. some finding such time not to constitute “changing clothes”) the Court’s holding may have limited application going forward, because if the disputed time was not time spent “changing clothes” 203(O) would have no applicability.

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D.Md.: Time Chicken Plant Workers Spent Donning & Doffing PPE Compensable; Plant’s Take Home Policy Is “Illusory”

Perez v. Mountaire Farms, Inc.

This opinion was rendered by the Court following a bench trial where expert and lay testimony was presented by both the employees and the employer. The primary issue in the case, was the oft-litigated issue of whether time the employees spent donning and doffing personal protection equipment (PPE), is compensable under the FLSA (as benefiting the employer), or not. In finding that such time is compensable the Court addressed several arguments presented by the Defendant to the contrary.

“The DOL has defined “work day” as “the period between the commencement and completion on the same work day of an employee’s principal activity or activities.” 29 C.F.R. § 790.6(a), (b). “[T]o the extent that activities engaged in by an employee occurs after the employee commences to perform the first principal activity on a particular work day and before he ceases the performance of the last principal activity on a particular work day,” those activities are not exempted from FLSA and are compensable. Id. Thus, under the “continuous work day” rule, any activity-donning and doffing, walking, waiting, sanitizing-undertaken by the employee after the work day has begun is compensable. See IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez, 546 U.S. at 28-29.

The Supreme Court has held that activities that are “integral and indispensable” to principal activities are themselves principal activities-not pre- or postliminary-and are therefore compensable under the FLSA. Steiner v. Mitchell, 350 U.S. 247, 256 (1956) (“activities performed either before or after the regular work shift, on or off the production line, are compensable … if those activities are an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities”). In my March 9, 2009 Memorandum and Order, I discussed the various approaches adopted by different circuits in defining the types of activities that are “integral and indispensable” to principal activities. In the end, I chose to follow the Ninth Circuit’s two part test: that donning and doffing of unique and non-unique protective gear are “integral and indispensable” if doing so is (1) necessary to the principal work performed and (2) done for the benefit of the employer. See Alvarez, 339 F.3d at 902-03. However, I left for determination at trial the specific question of whether donning and doffing PPE is “integral and indispensable” to the principal work of chicken processing. I find and conclude that it is.

First, donning and doffing is necessary to the principal work of chicken processing. It is undisputed that all employees are required to wear the following items no matter the department in which they work: wear plugs, bump caps, smocks (also called coats), hair/beard nets, and steel toed rubber boots. These items are required by Mountaire company policy, United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) sanitary regulations, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety requirements (“OSHA”). For example, OSHA requires employees to wear ear plugs to protect the employees’ ears. Different ear plugs have different OSHA ratings and employees are required to wear specific ear plugs depending on which section of the plant they work and how noisy that section is.

Other PPE items are required in order to keep the chickens clean. According to Alan Zlotorynski, a human resources manager at a different Mountaire plant, Mountaire requires employees to wear bump caps not to protect employees from actually bumping their heads, but because bump caps prevent employees’ hairs from falling into the products. The bump caps are not made of the same grade or quality of a helmet that prevents head injuries when worn. The primary purpose of the bump caps is to protect the product. The same may be said for hair and beard nets. In addition, employees must don and doff smocks, aprons, and gloves to safely handle chickens. Employees are not allowed to take smocks, aprons, or gloves into restrooms for sanitary reasons. Employees are likewise prohibited from taking aprons into the cafeteria. Shitwa Perez, an employee in the evisceration, salvage, and debone department, testified that an inspector specifically told her to replace her smocks to prevent contaminating the food. I credit this testimony. Clean smocks are so integral to chicken processing that the company launders the smocks daily and provides them to the employees on racks in easily accessible hallways.

Defense witnesses testified that everyone entering the production floor is required to wear all of these listed PPE items. But, the fact that everyone is required to wear these PPE items does not negate the fact that wearing them is required for chicken processing at Mountaire. Donning and doffing the required PPE are paramount to complying with federal regulations as well as producing safe products. Indeed, donning and doffing is so important to the work done at Mountaire that employees are subject to discipline or termination for failing to comply with donning requirements.

Other PPE that are not per se required by Mountaire are no less necessary for chicken processing. The workers testified during trial that they must wear clean cotton gloves in order to properly do their work. Mountaire does not require employees to wear cotton gloves; however, I find that cotton gloves are necessary to the principal work of chicken processing. Ray Barrientos, for example, worked on the Evisceration department. Workers in this department process chickens that have recently been dipped in scalding water and plucked. When the chickens arrive at his work station, therefore, the chickens are extremely hot and difficult to handle. Barrientos, and others on his line, are required to hang 45 chickens per minute. During cross-examination, Barrientos did admit that he may be able to perform his work without cotton gloves. Without the gloves, however, it would be impossible to hang the chickens properly at the pace required by Mountaire.

Luisa Perez, who worked in the breast debone department, encountered a different problem than Ray Barrientos. The temperature in the debone department was kept at 45 ° F. She had to wear fabric gloves under her mesh gloves in order to keep her hands warm. Moreover, she needed clean gloves to hold the knives safely because the blood and fat from the chickens made the knives extremely slippery. Cold hands make using knives, scissors, and other cutting equipment more dangerous to use. It is extremely clear that the PPE items are necessary to processing chickens properly.

Second, donning and doffing is done for the benefit of Defendant-employers. Michael Tirrell summarized the benefits of donning and doffing well. He testified that employees benefit from donning and doffing the PPE items inasmuch as the PPE items protects employees from workplace hazards. He also testified that Mountaire benefits from the employees’ donning and doffing because the PPE protects the products from contamination, helps keep workers compensation payments down, keeps missed time to a minimum, and shields the company from pain and suffering payments. I find and conclude that Mountaire is the primary beneficiary of the donning and doffing.”

The Court then addressed Defendant’s contention that the time is not compensable, because the employees have the option of taking home their PPE and changing there, rather than at work. Rejecting this argument, the Court stated it believed this was simply an “illusory” argument:

“In May 2006, DOL issued an advisory opinion stating that “if employees have the option and ability to change into the required gear at home, changing into the gear is not a principal activity, even when it takes place at the plant.” DOL Wage & Adv. Mem. No.2006-2 (May 31, 2006).FN1 In Abbe v. City of San Diego, the Southern District of California granted the city’s summary judgment motion because it could find “no evidence that its officers were required by law, policy, or the nature of their work to don and doff their uniform or safety equipment at work.” 2007 WL 4146696 at *7 (S.D.Cal. Nov. 9, 2007). The Northern District of California, on the other hand, concluded that donning and doffing may be compensable even if performed off the employer’s premises because “the location of the donning and doffing activity [should] be only one of the considerations” in determining if an activity is compensable. Lemmon v. City of San Leandro, 538 F.Supp.2d 1200, 1207 (N.D.Cal.2007). The important question is whether employees “actually have a meaningful opportunity to don their protective gear at home, or instead, whether that option is illusory.” Martin v. City of Richmond, 504 F.Supp.2d 766, 775 (N.D.Cal 2007).

The same memorandum includes a footnote which reads, “Since, like donning, obtaining the gear (as opposed to waiting to obtain the gear) ‘is always essential if the worker is to do his job,’ the compensable day starts once the employee has obtained the gear required to be stored on the premises by taking items out of a bin, a locker or another designated storage area.” Defendants would have the court read the phrase “required to be stored on the premises” strictly. They argue that, because PPE items are not required to be kept at the plant, the compensable day does not start when the employee dons PPE. I decline to read the DOL footnote so strictly. I find and conclude that the phrase “required to be stored on the premises” has a more practical meaning. The PPE were required to be stored at the premises because Mountaire gives each employee a locker in which to store all of the PPE and because, in reality, employees keep their PPE in their lockers, thereby making the option to take PPE home, illusory.

Defendants assert that employees have the option of taking home all of their PPE items; thus, donning and doffing cannot be a principal activity per DOL’s advisory opinion. I disagree. This case differs from Abbe in that Mountaire employees are required by law, policy, and the nature of the work to don and doff their PPE at work. More importantly, I find the take home option illusory. Employees are provided with lockers. Any employee who requests a locker receives one. Employers recently expanded the number of employee lockers. If changing at home were a bona fide option, there would be no real need for employee lockers or for Defendants to incur the costs of installing them. While employees are required to clean out their lockers on Fridays, they keep all of their PPE items in the lockers during the week. Dr. Radwin’s videos show employees storing their PPE items in their lockers at the end of the day, rather than taking those items home. As a practical matter, it would be onerous and indeed impractical for employees to take home a host of PPE (ear plugs, bump caps, smocks, aprons, hair/beard nets, and steel toed rubber boots) everyday when they have the option and ability to leave them in their lockers at the plant.

While Tirrell testified that he has seen employees driving around town with all of their PPE on, this particular incidence happens once in a “blue moon.” And it certainly does not happen in the middle of a humid Delaware summer. Furthermore, employees were not allowed to take smocks home prior to July 9, 2006. The normal order of donning is as follows: the smock goes on first, followed by the apron, the arm sleeves, and gloves. The smock is the foundation of the PPE. It must be in place before other gear can be donned. Complete donning for work, therefore, cannot be achieved until the lab coat is donned. So, even if employees were taking their PPE home before July 9, 2006, they could not commence the donning process until after they arrived at the plant.

Defendants emphasize that employees were allowed to take smocks home beginning on July 9, 2006. This fact does not strengthen Defendants’ take home defense. First, it is wholly illogical for employees to take home smocks soiled with chicken blood and fat when the company (1) provides hampers, close to the exits, in which employees may place the soiled smocks, (2) launders the smocks free of charge, and (3) provides clean smocks, arranged neatly on racks that are easily accessible at the plant hallways, at the beginning of the shifts. Second, it is plausible that employees take home clean smocks at the end of their shifts, before they go home; however, no witnesses have testified that this is a normal occurrence. To the contrary, Defendants’ expert Dr. Davis testified during deposition and at trial that he did not see anyone taking a smock home at the end of the day in the two separate weeks in which he conducted his study at Millsboro. The workers testified during trial that they all pick up smocks at the beginning of their shifts. Indeed, Dr. Radwin’s videos also confirm that the majority of employees pick up smocks at the beginning of their shifts. Zlotorynski also testified to this effect during depositions.

Third, even if employees do take clean smocks home at the end of the day, employees keep the rest of their PPE in their lockers so they would still need to report to the plant in advance of the start of line time to finish donning all of their PPE. It is quite clear that Mountaire employees did not “actually have a meaningful opportunity to don their protective gear at home.” Martin, 504 F.Supp.2d at 775. The take home option is illusory.

Defendants’ motivation for enacting the smock take home policy also bolsters the conclusion that the take home option is illusory. Tirrell’s email to various company personnel indicated that the smock take-home policy was designed to “effectively eliminate the donning and doffing issue.” This same email also indicated that Mountaire personnel “should have begun moving the hand wash sinks out to the dept areas to delay the ‘first principal activity’ until the line started.” Clearly, the decisions to institute the smock take home policy and moving the sinks closer to the production floor were motivated by Mountaire’s desire to circumvent DOL’s persistent directives that Mountaire must compensate employees for donning and doffing time. The same email thread, however, highlights the fact that the take home option is illusory. Replying to Tirrell’s email, Everett Brown, a Mountaire employee, wrote, “At this point we have talked with each employee and they are signing their name saying they understand they have the option to take the coat or not take the coat. Most are not taking the coat and don’t want it the night before. However as with all their other equipment they have the option.” This exchange elucidates Defendants’ position: that the important thing is that employees have a take home option, and not that the option is meaningful.”

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