Supreme Court Backs Workers in Pay Dispute

High Court Backs Workers in Pay Dispute (AP)

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that companies must pay plant workers for the time it takes to change into protective clothing and safety gear and walk to their work stations. The issue was one of two that justices settled in a pair of unanimous decisions, the first rulings under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts in the new fall term. Roberts did not write either one.

In a defeat for business, the court said that employers must pay wages for the donning of “integral” gear and the time it takes workers to then walk to the production area. The court, in a ruling by Justice John Paul Stevens, upheld a decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of workers at a meat processing plant in Pasco, Wash. Those workers typically put on sanitary outer garments, boots, hardhats, goggles and gloves.


The time spent putting on protective gear was not the focus of the ruling, because the Supreme Court said in a ruling nearly 50 years ago that plant workers must be compensated for time spent putting on special clothes. Instead, the dispute focused on the time employees spend walking from place to place. Justices had been told that workers sometimes have long waits after putting on their gear.


It was not a total defeat for business. Stevens wrote that workers could not demand payment for time spent waiting in line for equipment and safety gear, when they first arrive for work.

The cases are IBP Inc. v. Alvarez, 03-1238; Tum v. Barber Foods Inc., 04-66; and U.S. v. Olson, 04-759.

I’ll have to start billing my company for the time I spend putting on my suit and tie, which is expected attire according to company policy.

All kidding aside, this strikes me as perfectly reasonable as a matter of public policy. Indeed, I’m not sure why they shouldn’t be paid for the time standing in line, which is caused by inefficiencies by their company. I’d have to see the law itself to have an opinion on whether the ruling makes sense from a legal standpoint; given that it was decided 9-0, it was likely a slam dunk.


What’s amazing is that the statute in question is the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), as amended by the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947. It’s amazing that something this rudimentary has taken nearly six decades to be resolved.

What follows is some archana from the opinion that helps illustrate why the law develops in dribs and drabs.

[I]n Armour & Co. v. Wantock, 323 U. S. 126 (1944), we clarified that “exertion” was not in fact necessary for an activity to constitute “work” under the FLSA. We pointed out that “an employer, if he chooses, may hire a man to do nothing, or to do nothing but wait for something to happen.” Id., at 133. Two years later, in Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U. S. 680 (1946), we defined “the statutory workweek” to “include all time during which an employee is necessarily required to be on the employer’s premises, on duty or at a prescribed workplace. ” Id., at 690-691. Accordingly, we held that the time necessarily spent by employees walking from time clocks near the factory entrance gate to their workstations must be treated as part of the workweek. Id., at 691-692.

Well, I’m glad we cleared that up. So, why isn’t time spent standing in line waiting to put on employer-supplied gear not compensable?

With respect to existing claims, the Portal-to-Portal Act provided that employers would not incur liability on account of their failure to pay minimum wages or overtime compensation for any activity that was not compensable by either an express contract or an established custom or practice. […] [The statute prescribed that, “]”(2) activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to said principal activity or activities, which occur either prior to the time on any particular workday at which such employee commences, or subsequent to the time on any particular workday at which he ceases, such principal activity or activities.”[“]


[U]nlike the donning of certain types of protective gear, which is always essential if the worker is to do his job, the waiting may or may not be necessary inparticular situations or for every employee. It is certainly not “integral and indispensable” in the same sense that the donning is. It does, however, always comfortably qualify as a “preliminary” activity. We thus do not agree with petitioners that the predonning waiting time at issue in this case is a “principal activity” under §4(a).8 As Barber points out, the fact that certain preshift activities are necessary for employees to engage in their principal activities does not mean that those preshift activities are “integral and indispensable” to a “principal activity” under Steiner. For example, walking
from a time clock near the factory gate to a workstation is certainly necessary for employees to begin their work, but
it is indisputable that the Portal-to-Portal Act evinces Congress’ intent to repudiate Anderson’s holding that such walking time was compensable under the FLSA.

That clears things up!

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DL says:

    It seems in plants (unions?)that workers view the people who hire them and provide for their families as ,the enemy, and foster an “us, versus them” mentality.
    On the other hand, capitalists could well benefit by viewing the workers as humans, and not as merely a cost item on their balance sheets.

  2. Jim Jinkins says:

    Moral Hazard: If you are getting paid for the time it takes to get dressed and walk to your workstation, there is no motivation to get dressed faster or walk fast instead of saunter.

    In the long run, in a free market, the uncompesated time is reflected in a higher wage rate for the hours at the workstation.

    Either way, a competent management will make the dressing and walking time as easy as possible. Are all managers competent? Not in my experience. Are all workers committed to earning their pay instead of just collecting it?

  3. Alan says:

    I’m also surprised workers don’t have to be paid from the time they are told to show up, even when they have to spend time waiting in line to get their gear before going to work.

  4. Mark says:

    I thought John Roberts was against workers rights? At least that’s what Schumer and Kennedy told us. Oh well.