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Clothing or protective gear? Steel workers argue the latter

For most employees, the uniforms that they wear at work are put on at home. If the workplace is an office, the mandatory shirt and tie was taken out of their personal closet. If the workplace is an airline, the slacks and captain’s hat was put on at the house or the hotel. For servers at restaurant chains, the company shirt is one that they get to bring home, and the list goes on.

In some industries, the work-wear isn’t something that the employee takes home or used for brand recognition. For instance, steel workers are often required to wear flame-retardant gear to protect their body at the workplace. These employees must get to work early to put on this gear before their shift starts. That time, says steel workers, should be considered as being on-the-clock.

A wage and hour lawsuit was filed by approximately 800 current and former steel workers at a Gary, Indiana, United States Steel Corp plant. That suit has made its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States where a ruling would catch the attention of industry employers in Evesham, New Jersey, and the other 49 states.

The lawsuit was filed by the steel workers, but it was on behalf of unionized workers in other sectors such as meat packing and poultry processing that must don similar gear before work. It isn’t just that this gear must be put on prior to a shift and taken off after, the workers claim that these items should be considered protective gear not clothing.

The differentiation between clothing and protective gear makes a difference in this case. Should the Supreme Court decide that it is clothing, the law states that the workers are not entitled to pay for the time it takes to change into it. However, should the court rule in favor of U.S. Steel, the employer would not have to include this time as part of their paid hours.

The argument made by U.S. Steel is that anything that is essentially put on the body and can be taken off is clothing. Justice Antonin Scalia has already commented on the issue, saying that the argument made by U.S. Steel is possibly overreaching. “Nobody would consider eyeglasses or a wristwatch or some of this other specialized equipment to be clothes,” he said in a comment that goes to statutory interpretation of the word “clothing.”

A ruling on this issue would make a difference in these industries for both employers and employees, but they will have to wait. There is no clear date as to when a ruling will be made other than the end of the court’s current term in June 2014.

Source: Chicago Tribune, “Supreme Court weighs fight over changing clothes at work,” Amanda Becker, Nov. 4, 2013

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