Supreme Court Ruling on Working Time Will Have Coast-to-Coast Impact

In a case arising under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the Supreme Court has recently resolved a disagreement in the Court of Appeals regarding compensable time at the beginning and end of the work day. Not surprisingly the 1st Circuit in New England was employer-friendly, disagreeing with the 9th Circuit Court in California.

In IBP Inc. v. Alvarez the Court looked at the beginning and ending of the work day for production line employees in a meat and chicken packing plant. Relying on the 69-year old federal Portal-to Portal Act, which is incorporated into the FLSA, the employer contended that time spent donning protective clothing necessary for these positions and for walking to the actual place of work in the morning was a “preliminary activity” and need not be compensated. Similarly, the employer contended that the time required to walk back to a changing area and the time to doff protective clothing was “postliminary” to work activity and also need not be paid.

The employees at the plant contended that the donning of the protective clothing was an integral and indispensable portion of their work. Under the Portal-to-Portal Act, once an integral and indispensable portion of the work has begun that constitutes a principal activity of the job, both that time and all working time thereafter must be compensated until doffing of the protective clothing has been completed.

The Venerable Portal-to-Portal Act was intended to protect employers by excluding from compensation time spent “walking, riding, or traveling to and from the actual place of performance of the principal activity . . .” This is why the law was clear that an employee’s routine commutes to and from work are not compensable. However, many cases have arisen over the years as to what activities coming just before, or immediately after the work day, are preliminary or postliminary activities as opposed to principal activities.

The Supreme Court in IBP, Inc. ruled in favor of the employees. The Court agreed with their argument that donning protective clothing was a principal activity, accordingly that time, and the time spent walking from the changing room to the production line was compensable. Following this analysis, the time spent walking back to the changing room in the evening as well as the time spent changing clothes was also compensable.

Employers in many other industries and workplaces may have a beef about this fowl ruling. The Court’s rationale may affect virtually any workplace where employees must perform some routine, preparatory activity prior to actually beginning productive work. Similarly, time spent after shut down getting ready to leave or tidying up a workplace so that it will be ready the following morning may also be considered compensable. Additionally, time spent walking or riding across the employer’s premises will also be compensable if some principal activity has occurred during the work day or must still occur before the employee departs.

The only portion of this ruling favorable to employers is that employees who are already on the employer’s premises but are waiting to engage in principal activity need not be paid. This portion of the ruling is not new and simply reaffirms existing law.

This landmark case will be discussed in further detail at the Kaufman & Canoles 22nd Annual Employment Law Update in Richmond on March 23, 2006.


The contents of this publication are intended for general information only and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on specific facts and circumstances. Copyright 2017.

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