- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2005


The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that companies must pay plant workers for the time it takes to change into protective clothing and safety gear and walk to their work stations.

The issue was one of two that justices settled in a pair of unanimous decisions, the first rulings under the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in the new fall term. Chief Justice Roberts did not write either one.

In a defeat for business, the court said that employers must pay wages for the donning of “integral” gear and the time it takes workers to then walk to the production area.

The court, in a ruling by Justice John Paul Stevens, upheld a decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of workers at a meat-processing plant in Pasco, Wash. Those workers typically put on sanitary outer garments, boots, hard hats, aprons and gloves.

In a second ruling, the justices said the 9th Circuit should reconsider whether federal officials can be sued for negligence over an accident in an Arizona copper mine.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing that opinion, said the appeals court ruled too broadly in allowing the lawsuit by two men who were seriously injured in 2000 when a 9-ton rock slab fell from the ceiling of the Mission Underground Mine.

The worker pay case was the first appeal argued this term, on Oct. 3, and the first in which Chief Justice Roberts was presiding in the court.

The time spent putting on protective gear was not the focus of the ruling, because the Supreme Court held nearly 50 years ago that workers at a battery plant must be compensated for time spent putting on special protective clothes.

Instead, the dispute focused on the time that employees spend walking from place to place. Justices had been told that workers sometimes have long waits after putting on their gear.

“The relevant walking in this case occurs after the workday begins and before it ends,” Justice Stevens wrote.

The decision involves a Washington state plant now owned by Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., a subsidiary of Tyson Foods Inc., and a separate Barber Foods chicken processing plant in Portland, Maine.

It was not a total defeat for business. Justice Stevens wrote that workers could not demand payment for time spent waiting in line for equipment and safety gear when they arrive for work.

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