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Steelworkers await high court ruling in seven-year-old lawsuit

A group steelworkers have sued U.S. Steel Gary Works saying they should be paid for time it takes them change

A group of steelworkers have sued U.S. Steel Gary Works, saying they should be paid for the time it takes them to change into protective gear they need to work in the mill's hazardous environment. | Post-Tribune File Photo

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Updated: January 6, 2014 6:24AM

A group of Northwest Indiana residents have achieved what few people ever will: they took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court is asked to review thousands of cases each year but, on average, takes only about 100 of them. The eight local plaintiffs who appealed their lawsuit against their employer, U.S. Steel Gary Works, were one of those rare cases. The court heard arguments from the attorneys involved in the case earlier this month.

“I’m just glad there are some people in Washington, D.C., that are moving through cases,” one plaintiff, Herbert Harris, of Gary, said.

The case revolves around whether employees at U.S. Steel Gary Works should be paid starting from the time they put on their protective gear, or whether they are not on the clock until they actually reach the work floor.

The company has argued the time spent putting on the gear doesn’t count; it’s position is that the gear is just clothing, and federal law says that employers don’t have to pay employees for changing into their clothes.

But the plaintiffs — Clifton Sandifer, Nicole Andrews, Dora Anderson, Harris, Bernard Jenkins, Alvin Mitchell and Marilyn Walton, all of Indiana, and Kenny Williams, of Illinois — argue that the gear isn’t normal clothing. They have to wear it to protect them from hazards at the Gary Works plant, so time spent putting it on should count as part of their work day.

Appeals courts have split on the issue, with one court saying anything worn on the body, including a police officer’s gun, is considered clothing, and another court saying clothing is only items worn for comfort and protection from the normal elements.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction in Indiana, also ruled on the lawsuit. That court essentially said if an item looks like clothing, it is. It ruled in favor of U.S. Steel, and the plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Getting a case to the Supreme Court is not a speedy process. The employees filed their lawsuit in December 2007. Despite the time and money involved in fighting their case, Aaron Maduff, their attorney, said his clients didn’t want to give it up because it involves so much of their time that they’re not getting paid for, he said.

Many people may not see what the fuss is about because it takes them only seconds to get dressed each day, Maduff said, but that’s just not the case for Gary Works employees.

Because the steel mill is so large and dangerous, many employees must take a bus from where they park to a special area to change into their gear, which can include hard hats, earplugs, chemically treated pants and respirators. They then must wait for another bus to take them to their work area. The process is repeated when they leave; the workers must wait for a bus to take them to the changing and cleaning area and then take a bus back to their cars.

For some employees, that all adds up to an additional two hours they don’t get paid for, Maduff said.

“They’re asking for (the pay) because of the dangers of the workplace,” Maduff said.

Harris, who has since retired, said it was important for him to keep pursuing the case because he wanted to get what he felt he and other employees deserved from U.S. Steel.

“It’s worth it,” he said. “Some people have to push it to the limit.”

Although they’ve had to wait six years, Maduff said, his clients have waited because they had to. Most of them have few if any other job prospects in Northwest Indiana, he said.

“This is not a choice where they get to make a decision,” he said. “They either have a job or they don’t. … They’re just doing what they have to do because they don’t have any choice in the matter.”

Maduff said they were optimistic that the court would take their case, despite the small odds. However, he said he doesn’t know how they will rule. Some of the justices, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, did not seem to agree with the plaintiffs during the oral arguments, but others, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, did, Maduff said.

“You never know what the justices are going to come down with,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

Maduff said he expected the justices will issue a ruling on the case sometime next summer.

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