Should steelworkers get paid to get ready for work?

2013-10-25T20:30:00Z 2013-10-31T14:42:11Z Should steelworkers get paid to get ready for work?Joseph S. Pete joseph.pete@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

Most employees are accustomed to getting paid the moment they sit down at their desk or punch in at their workplace.

But many union workers are not on the clock when they first show up at Gary Works and other steel mills. Many of them first don steel-toed boots, hard hats, goggles, earplugs and flame-retardant hoods. They walk or get bused to work stations across the 4,000-acre mill, which sprawls for seven miles along the lakefront. It all happens before their pay meter starts running.

Putting on and taking off the protective gear, and the transit time between the locker room and the blast furnace floor can add up to an hour or two a day, according to a lawsuit the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Nov. 4. The case may hinge largely on how the high court defines clothes, said Eric Schnapper, a University of Washington law professor who is arguing on behalf of steelworkers.

However the court rules, the precedent set would end up having repercussions mainly in the steel and meat processing industries, where workers have to don gear to protect them from workplace hazards, Schnapper said.

Gary Works employees filed the litigation against U.S. Steel in 2007, contending they should get paid overtime for all the extra time they spent getting dressed and undressed at the mill. Now about 800 current and former steelworkers have joined the suit, which asks for multiple years of back pay.

Steelworkers argue it is only fair they get paid for putting on specialized safety gear that includes earplugs, flame-retardant spats that keep molten metal out of work boots and hoods similar to those worn by Navy gun crews.

U.S. Steel argues the workers should not be paid for changing clothes, that their union has not attempted to get compensation for that time during collective bargaining agreements during the past 65 years and that paying workers for more hours would result in depressed hourly wages.

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Courtney Boone declined to comment when contacted by The Times.

The company's attorneys argue the case would amount to little more than a one-time windfall for select employees, who stand to make up to a year's wages. They say only about 7 percent of the Pittsburgh-based steelmakers' employees require more than a few seconds each day to put on protective clothes. The lawyers warn that overall hourly wage rates would be reduced, so the steelmaker could stay competitive internationally.

"Had those additional hours been counted, market forces would have required that petitioners accept a lower base rate," U.S. Steel's attorneys argued in a filing.

Nonunion workers receive pay for the time they spend dressing and undressing at the workplace. But the 4,500 unionized workers at U.S. Steel's Gary Works do not because of a 1938 federal law that exempts changing time if it's conceded in a collective bargaining agreement.

U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers have agreed for more than six decades that employees are not on the clock while suiting up. The union is not participating in the lawsuit.

Ultimately, the case may come down to whether the steelworkers are putting on clothing or equipment, Schnapper said.

If the high court decides the steelworkers are putting on work clothes, they will not get back pay. They would, however, get a settlement for unpaid overtime if justices decided the workers are actually donning special equipment.

The steelmaker may take a financial hit if it loses in court, but it likely would not matter much in the face of greater challenges, such as the still-sluggish global economy, said Charles Bradford, a New York-based analyst of the steel industry.

"Whether a worker gets paid overtime for the time it takes to change his clothes is not going to affect the stock price," he said.

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