The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was careful to provide a definition of “work” in order to make sure companies did not take advantage of their employees by forcing them to perform work without fair compensation. Unfortunately, the definition is still sufficiently vague as to leave some matters in question.
One of those matters is the time it takes to put on (don) and take off (doff) any uniforms or safety equipment employees are required to wear while working. Most companies don’t consider donning and doffing special clothing or equipment to be work, so they don’t pay their employee for that time. The workers, on the other hand, argue that as long as their employers require them to don and doff uniforms or safety equipment before and after their shifts, it cannot be considered part of the employees’ personal time.
Workers also argue that having their workers wear such clothing or gear provides a direct benefit to the employer by helping them maintain a safe work environment and/or a clean and sterile environment for their products. As such, employees argue, companies should be required to pay their employees for donning and doffing time.
One recent such wage and hour class action lawsuit that deals with this very issue is Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo. In this lawsuit, the class of plaintiffs allege Tyson improperly failed to pay all its employees for time spent working by requiring them to don and doff special equipment without compensating them for that time.
The plaintiffs are hourly employees at a pork-processing facility, but the wage and hour class action is unique because it includes some members who did not spend any time donning and doffing equipment. Those who did don and doff equipment spent varying amounts of time on the task, which forces courts to consider how much variation between individual class members should be allowed when certifying a class action lawsuit.
The district court decided to certify the class and the plaintiffs provided evidence that, assuming all class members represented the “average” employee of Tyson, proved the company was liable for damages suffered by workers. The district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and granted them a judgment of $5.8 million.
Tyson appealed the decision, saying the class should never have been certified, and the Eighth Circuit court was divided on the issue, but the majority ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. It cited the fact Tyson had a company policy that did not compensate employees for donning and doffing time and all the class members worked at the same processing plant and used similar equipment, thereby making class certification appropriate.
Tyson again appealed and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. In general, the Supreme Court has not been as lenient as lower courts in matters where the class members’ claims are not almost identical. Despite the Supreme Court’s rulings against plaintiffs whose claims are too dissimilar, such as Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, the lower courts continue to certify classes of plaintiffs that would not necessarily meet the Supreme Court’s more stringent requirements.
Our Mundelein, Grays Lake and Gurnee wage and hour attorneys and unpaid overtime lawyers and attorneys are intimately familiar with the issues that arise during wage claim litigation, and we know the laws that govern overtime cases well. Many employers misclassify employees as being exempt from overtime laws and pay workers salaries instead of hourly wages in order to avoid paying them overtime. Some employers mistakenly classify employees as exempt and others intentionally do so in order to circumvent the law. In either case, workers do not receive the wages they should, and a lawsuit may be the only way to recover their earned wages.
Nationwide Consumer Rights is based in Chicago and Oakbrook Terrace. We represent clients throughout the country who have not been paid for the overtime hours that they worked. If you believe that you are owed overtime wages, contact one of our Chicago class action attorneys by phone at 630-333-0333 or through our online form.