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The 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled on a wage and hour lawsuit earlier this week, involving a group of workers in Maryland. The case hinged on issues of pay and whether employees should be compensated for the time it took them to get in and out of their required safety apparel — or as the court called it “donning and doffing” their protective gear.
Quick facts: The case involves workers at a Delaware poultry processing plant. The workers are obligated to wear protective clothing, as provided by the company. This clothing also needs to be sanitized at various periods throughout the day, in order to be in compliance with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sanitary regulations as well as with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety regulations.
Writes the district court decision: "All employees are required to wear ear plugs, bump caps, lab coats, hair/beard nets, and steeltoed rubber boots."
Time spent getting dressed in protective gear: During the course of the district court's bench trial, expert testimony was introduced as experts weighed in on exactly how long it took for employees to "don and doff" their apparel. In the end, the court found that the total time spend per day on donning and doffing was 17 minutes.
In reaching its decision, the court asked whether the acts of donning and doffing the gear was "integral and indispensable" to the functions of the job.
The district court held that the time spend "donning and doffing" the protective gear at the beginning and end of the work shift needed to be taken into account. As such, ruled the district court, this was to be paid time, under the Federal Labor Standards Act.
However, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals also noted that the time spent "donning and doffing" mid-shift was not paid time.
Good Faith and lack of "willfullness": The Fourth Circuit also held that the FLSA violations by the poultry processing plant were not "willful" and that as such, the employees may only collect back-pay as far back as two years, under the applicable statute of limitations.
Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Mountaire acted in good faith and as such, liquidated damages were not awarded to plaintiffs.
This is a good case for employment practitioners who may have wage and hour lawsuits as it not only shows the reach of the FLSA but also shows application of the punitive aspects of wage and hour lawsuits.