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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.