There has been a significant amount of litigation against employers over the compensability of work time for putting on and taking off safety-related clothing and equipment prior to the start of a shift but necessary for the work to be performed.  For example, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation recently agreed to pay $1 million in back wages to settle a donning and doffing case with the U.S. Department of Labor.  

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (the federal appellate court hearing appeals from Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana) recently affirmed a trial court judgment in favor of McWane, Inc. (a cast iron pipe and fitting manufacturer) in a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action filed on behalf of 2,100 employees. The lawsuit sought unpaid wages for time spend putting on and taking off safety gear before and after employees’ scheduled shift (i.e., hard hats, steel-toed boots, safety glasses and ear plugs). This is commonly referred to as donning and doffing pay. 

Employees at McWane worked at ten different plants. Three of the plants had collective bargaining agreements (CBA) that expressly excluded donning and doffing time from compensable time. The remaining seven plants had CBAs that were silent on the issue of donning and doffing pay. Employees were paid based on “line time,” which measures shift working time as starting when the first item hits the processing line and ends when the last item leaves the processing line. None of the plants had ever paid (in over 40 years) employees for pre-shift donning and doffing time and the issue had never been previously discussed at union meetings or during contact negotiations (and union officials and employees admitted that they never knew pre- and post-shift changing time was potentially compensable under the FLSA). 


The Fair Labor Standards Act generally requires that employees receive overtime pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week at one and one-half times the regular rate of pay. An exception exists for time spent changing clothes if it has been excluded by custom or practice under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement. The McWane employees argued that donning and doffing was subject to exclusion as time worked only when it has been affirmatively bargained away in the labor contract, and therefore no waiver existed in this case because the union representatives did not have knowledge of the right to compensation for this changing time nor any knowledge of or agreement to a policy of nonpayment for that time.


The Fifth Circuit rejected these arguments and sided with other courts of appeals to hold that “even where 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 the CBA was executed, satisfies the [FLSA’s] requirement of ‘ a custom or practice under a bona fide’ CBA.” The Court further held that burden of establishing the absence of a custom or practice under a CBA is on the plaintiff employees and is not an affirmative defense on which the employer bears the burden of proof.


Access the opinion here: Allen v. McWane, Inc., No. 08-41037 (5th Cir. 2010)