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.”