Protective gear and time worked: What federal appeals court said

Do employees need to be paid for time spent putting on and taking off their safety gear?

That common Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) question has popped up again in the courts, this time in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Tyger v. Precision Drilling Corp., the federal appeals court ruled that the lower court had applied the wrong test when it decided employees didn’t need to be paid for donning and doffing protective clothing. So, it sent the case back to the federal district court for a trial. Here are the details:

Rig hands – i.e., crew members on an oil rig – had to wear protective gear each day including:

  • flame-retardant coveralls
  • steel-toed boots
  • hard hats
  • safety glasses
  • gloves, and
  • earplugs.

The rig hands thought they should be paid for time spent getting into and out of protective clothing. But according to the employer, it wasn’t required to pay the workers for time spent doing those preliminary and postliminary activities. After all, the employer argued, they weren’t integral and indispensable to the workers’ principal activities.

Integral and indispensable

The court looked closely at what makes an activity integral to a principal activity. That includes:

  • Location. Employees may put on safety gear once in the workplace. If they don’t have a meaningful option to change into gear at home, it makes sense to say donning and doffing is integral.
  • Regulations. When regs require the protective gear, that suggests that the changing is integral.
  • Type of gear. The more specialized the gear, whether required by regs or the nature of the work, the more likely time spent changing into/out of the protective gear is integral.

As for whether an activity is indispensable, the Supreme Court has ruled it doesn’t need to be strictly necessary. Rather, the activity should be reasonably necessary.