Should steelworkers get paid to get dressed? The Supreme Court will rule on it

The U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC.

Ever wanted to get paid just to get dressed for work? In November, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about the meaning of putting on your work clothes. The case, Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, pits 800 steelworkers in Gary, Indiana against the country’s largest steel company.

Bill Ferguson, union president for steelworkers at a plant in Nanticoke, Ontario says that working at a steel mill is like standing next to a volcano. "You have a stream of molten iron that lights up the entire area. That stream actually shoots through the air, it jets through the air for about 20 feet before it actually hits a trough. That trough is actually then full of what looks like molten lava.”

Ferguson’s mill isn’t involved in the suit, but it uses the same equipment as American steel mills. He lists off the gear that steelworkers wear in the volcano-like environment: “Helmet, earmuffs, face protectors, a snood which is a covering that goes down the back of the neck to prevent sparks from getting down the back of your shirt.”

There’s more, including fire-retardant boots and jackets -- with protective wrist and ankle coverings -- to keep molten metal away from the skin.

On November 4, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether this equipment constitutes clothing, and if donning and doffing protective equipment is changing clothes, or something else entirely.

That’s right -- nine Supreme Court Justices in their black robes will debate the legal definition of clothes. The steelworkers say their gear isn’t clothing, and if the Court sides with them, they’ll be paid for the time it take to put it on and take it off, and collect back pay on it as well.

Putting on safety gear could trigger the beginning of steelworkers’ work days, and so employees would also collect pay for the time they spend going from their lockers to their work stations, and from their work stations back to their lockers. At the plant in Gary, which is spread across 4,000 acres and employs more than 5,000 people, the time spent changing and travelling to work stations can be substantial. Tens of millions of dollars could be at stake, at the Gary mill alone.

Their bosses at U.S. Steel say the equipment is clothing, and that the Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t require them to compensate steelworkers for the time it takes to put on and take off clothing.

Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the University of California Irvine, explains U.S. Steel’s argument by comparing steelworkers to lawyers: “Lawyers have to wear suits to court. But nobody’s arguing that lawyers need to be paid for the time they spend putting on a suit or tying a tie.”

And that’s because the law sees those suits as just clothes. If the Court decides a steelworker’s gear is like a lawyer’s suit, then U.S. Steel isn’t on the hook for that time.

A ruling with the steelworkers could affect other workplaces, Fisk says, “whether that’s an employee at another steel mill, or employees working in a poultry processing or meat slaughtering plant. It could have implications for lots of employers and lots of employees.”

It all comes down to how the Supreme Court defines clothes.

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