U.S. Supreme Court sides with U.S. Steel in workers’ lawsuit
BY TERESA AUCH SCHULTZ email@example.com January 27, 2014 4:22PM
Updated: January 27, 2014 9:30PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled against a group of local workers who wanted U.S. Steel to pay them for the time it took to change into their protective gear.
Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said in the majority opinion, issued Monday, that federal law protects employers like U.S. Steel from having to pay workers during the time it takes them to change clothes to start and end the day.
“For many decades, U.S. Steel has appropriately and constructively addressed these matters in our collective bargaining process, and this decision reaffirms the validity of that approach,” Chuck Rice, general manager for public affairs for U.S. Steel, said in a statement.
An attorney for the eight U.S. Steel plaintiffs — Clifton Sandifer, Nicole Andrews, Dora Anderson, Herbert Harris, Bernard Jenkins, Alvin Mitchell and Marilyn Walton, all of Indiana, and Kenny Williams, of Illinois — said he was disappointed by the ruling but was not surprised by it considering the questions that the justices asked during the oral arguments.
The plaintiffs filed suit against U.S. Steel in December 2007 in U.S. District Court in Hammond.
They had argued that the clothing they changed into upon arriving at the Gary Works site was not normal clothing that they might wear elsewhere. Instead, it was protective clothing demanded by safety rules to work in the dangerous environment at the plant.
Although changing into the actual clothes might not take more than a few minutes, it was part of a longer process that included taking a shuttle from where they park to the area where they change and then taking another shuttle to the work floor. That time spent in transit could add up to two hours a day, and their pay started only when they reached the work floor, Maduff said.
“People are not being asked to put on a suit and tie like I do every morning, and they are not allowed to do it at home,” Maduff said of his clients. “This is a significant amount of time that’s involved.”
A district judge ruled against the plaintiffs, however, as did the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, after which they asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case. Oral arguments were held in November.
Part of the case hung on what could be considered clothing. Some appellate court used a broad definition of anything that could be worn on the body, including items such as guns.
Scalia in his opinion did recognize a difference between what he called clothing and other wearable items, and he did say that some of the items that U.S. Steel workers must put on, such as safety glasses, earplugs and respirators, did not count as clothing.
However, he said that in deciding whether putting on and taking these items off should be counted as paid time, officials should look to whether employees spent a majority of their time changing clothes or equipment like earplugs and safety glasses.
“If an employee devotes the vast majority of the time in question to putting on and off equipment or non-clothes items (perhaps a diver’s suit and tank) the entire period would not qualify as ‘time spent in changing clothes’... even if some clothes items were donned and doffed as well,” Scalia wrote.
In the case of the U.S. Steel employees, Scalia wrote that they spent the majority of their time changing into items that could be considered clothing, so they should not be paid for that time.
Maduff said though the court used a more restrained definition of clothing than some other courts, he thinks the court was still wrong in its ruling.
He added that unions representing workers at U.S. Steel could negotiate with the company in their contracts, but have not.