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Is it “Work” To Dress For Work?

Six times a day, for 6 to 10 minutes each time, workers at a chicken processing plant were required to put on, take off, and clean safety and sanitary clothing that they had to wear while on the job. The special gear consisted of smocks, hairnets, gloves, earplugs, and safety glasses. When a dispute arose between the workers and their employer over whether the employees were entitled to be paid during this time, the workers claimed a right to compensation under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

A jury initially ruled against the workers on the ground that the dressing, undressing, and cleaning activities were not “work” within the meaning of the FLSA. The jury had been instructed that, under the FLSA, the activities were not work without a sufficiently laborious degree of exertion, such as may be required if the gear were cumbersome, heavy, or required significant concentration to put on and take off.

An appellate court disagreed with the “exertion” standard and ruled in favor of the workers. Under the FLSA, it is not appropriate to focus on whether an activity requires a certain level of exertion in deciding whether it is “work.” Instead, the key for treating an activity as “work” is finding that it is an integral and indispensable part of the primary activities undertaken for the employer’s benefit, and that it is controlled or required by the employer.

Even though the dressing, undressing, and cleaning jobs done by the poultry workers were, in a sense, peripheral to the main tasks, they still were an essential part of the job, for which the workers had a right to compensation. (Do not expect a similar result if you are a white-collar worker hoping to be paid for the time taken to put on a coat and tie in the morning.)

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