An appeal court decision last month that held a processor does not have to pay union member employees for the time taken to put on and remove protective clothing, could save the food industry millions.
The decision reverses a recent trend of finding in favor of workers and settlements, and will allow processors in the US will breathe a sigh of relief as similar actions by employees for additional wages and backdated pay would amount to huge sums.
The three-judge panel ruling against eight employees ends workers at Georgia-based Cagle Foods hopes of payment for donning and doffing, as well as washing their clothes before taking breaks, which the company requires.
Cagle Foods, which has changed its name to Equity Group Georgia Division since the beginning of the action, successfully argued that a provision in a long-standing federal law says companies with unions can't be forced to pay workers for changing in and out of their work clothes.
The case had grown into a class action involving about 2,200 current and former workers, but its status was stripped on June 12 appeals court ruling, allowing individual actions only to proceed.
The decision comes at a time when many other processors are settling out of court for claims made by employees. The appeal decision, in favor of business, may settle a running a battle of conflicting case law decisions.
Actions have been brought using the Fair Labor Standards Act, in which it states that time spent on changing clothes or washing is excluded from time worked where it is considered a custom or practice and the employees are covered under a labor contract.
In June 2007 a $1.3m settlement was made between Hatfield Quality Meats and its employees following a dispute.
However, June 2006 Tyson Foods, a large poultry processor, was sucessful against an action brought by workers in 2000, which claimed the company had failed to pay them for time to taken to put on and take off certain items of clothing. In this decision, a jury concluded these activities are not work.
A month before the Tyson decision, George's Processing agreed a $1.24m settlement in a lawsuit brought by the Department of Labor.
The George's case was among a number filed since 2002 in the Departments battle against the common practice.
A decision by the US Supreme Court in 2005 held that in limited circumstances, companies must pay workers for "walking time" once protective clothing is put on or taken off. Where the items being used are "unique" and an integral part of the activity at the workplace, the employees should be compensated for the dressing and removal of clothing and equipment. The workers in this instance, however, were covered by a collective bargaining agreement.
In the late nineties, about 800 workers meat process workers were awarded $8.4m back pay from Tyson Foods, in a case it inherited with the acquisition of the Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) slaughterhouse, Washington State, in 2001.