GARY | The nation's highest court has ruled Northwest Indiana steelworkers should not get back pay for the time they spent putting on hard hats and other protective gear before clocking in, or taking it off at the end of the shift.
U.S. Steel has prevailed in an eight-year legal battle that began at Gary Works and ended up being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court last fall. The court ruled unanimously against 800 current and former steelworkers who argued they should be paid for putting on safety glasses, respirators, ear plugs and other protective gear, as well as for the time it takes to get from the locker room to their work stations on the sprawling mill that stretches along seven miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled in our favor that the brief amount of time it takes to put on and remove protective clothing is not part of the paid workday under the Fair Labor Standards Act," U.S. Steel said in a statement. "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."
One of the plaintiffs, retired steelworker and Gary resident Herbert Harris, said he was disappointed with the outcome but planned to soon visit Washington, D.C., to continue to press the issue.
"It doesn't surprise me," Harris said. "Big money is big money. The system is the system. We were just hoping and praying for justice."
Much of the case hinged on semantics: specifically, what "clothes" means, and what "changing clothes" means.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the unanimous decision that U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers union have agreed for decades that employees do not get paid for time changing clothes, and that steel-toed boots and other protective equipment count as clothes.
Employees in other fields get paid for any time spent getting dressed and undressed at their workplace, but a 1938 federal law exempts time spent changing clothes if it is conceded in a collective bargaining agreement. The union that represents 4,500 workers at Gary Works has made that concession for more than six decades.
Hoods, spats, wrist guards and other items steelworkers don cannot be distinguished from clothes, just because they are meant to protect workers from fire, heat, molten steel and other hazards at the mill, Scalia wrote.
"A parasol protects against the sun, enhancing the comfort of the bearer – just as work gloves protect against scrapes and cuts, enhancing the comfort of the wearer. ... We see no basis for the proposition that the unmodified term 'clothes' somehow omits protective clothing."
Scalia wrote steelworkers would have gotten a huge windfall.
"In the aggregate, the amount of time – and thus money – involved is likely to be quite large," Scalia wrote.
Chicago attorney Aaron Maduff, who represented the workers, said he disagreed with the ruling but did not think it was wacky, just wrong. Union contracts were negotiated back when workers wore far less protective gear, but steelworkers now spend up to 10 hours a day at the mill while only getting paid for eight hours because of all the time spent changing and traveling to their work stations, he said.
"It's not like me putting on a suit and tie in the morning," he said.
Outside of the steel industry, the biggest impact of the case is on what time workers get compensated for in the food processing and meatpacking sectors, where workers also have to don protective gear. They do not have to spend as much time as steelworkers putting on heavy suits and steel-toed boots, but do don and doff aprons, smocks and hairnets.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimated that food producers could be liable for $1,578 per worker if the Supreme Court struck down collective bargaining agreements and a flood of lawsuits poured in.
"The class action litigation and retroactive liability that would follow could be devastating to many employers in the industry," association attorneys wrote in a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.