Supreme Court To Decide Two FLSA Lawsuits

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear appeals in two cases that involve the question of what time is compensable as “hours worked” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The cases could set new standards for the compensability of “preliminary time.”

In the first of the cases, employees of a meatpacking plant in Maine sought compensation for the time they spent walking to retrieve and return necessary safety gear. The employees also sought compensation for the time spent waiting at a time clock to punch in. A federal court of appeals found that the time spent getting into and out of specialized clothing and equipment was compensable. The Court turned down all other requests for compensation, though, reasoning that they were excluded from the FLSA’s coverage by a law known as the Portal-to-Portal Act, which deems non-compensable “preliminary time” unrelated to the central functions of the employee’s job.

In the second case, a different court also found that the time spent getting into and out of safety gear was compensable. Differing from the first court’s decision, the Court also found that the time spent by employees walking from locker rooms and work stations was compensable.

The Supreme Court’s decision will likely focus on whether the time spent on activities other than donning and shedding safety gear is compensable. Given that an employee has not won a Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit in the United States Supreme Court since 1985, predictions are that the Court will rule such minor activities are non-compensable, and not related to the employee’s principal activity.

The lower court decisions are Tum v. Barber Foods, 360 F.3d 274 (1st Cir. 2004) and Alvarez v. IBP, Inc., 339 F.3d 894 (9th Cir. 2003).

This article appears in the April 2005 issue