As an employer, it is oftentimes difficult to determine which employee activities require compensation. While it is clear that employees must be paid for time spent changing into and out of specialized protective gear, must employees also be paid for the time spent walking to their work areas after changing into their gear?
Under the continuous workday regulations created by the Department of Labor, employees must be compensated for all time between the beginning of the first principal activity of the day and the end of the last principal activity. A principal activity is defined under the Fair Labor Standards Act as the productive labor or activity which the employee was hired to perform.
While it was previously unclear whether specialized gear donning and removing time constituted a principal activity that began and ended the workday, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision held that in fact it does. Therefore, because changing in and out of the gear is vital to the employees’ jobs, the walking time that occurs both after donning it and the time prior to taking it off must be compensated.
However, there still exists some uncertainty in what this all means for employers. For instance, many of the lower courts in New England have yet to distinguish between vital protective gear and everyday uniforms. Thus, it is debatable whether changing into and out of regular uniforms is also considered a principal activity, requiring employer compensation. Additionally, there is a fine line to be drawn in that time spent waiting in line to pick up required gear is generally uncompensated, unless the employee is instructed to report at a specific time and then waits.
Failure to properly compensate employees can create serious problems for employers. Similarly, needlessly overcompensating employees can be a financial disaster waiting to happen. Thus, employers are urged to take care in recognizing what does, and what does not, require compensation.