As discussed previously, the USDOL Wage and Hour Division has ceased issuing Opinion Letters in response to specific requests for guidance from the public, but rather has decided to issue more general “Administrator’s Interpretations” of its own volition on topics of the DOL’s choosing. As with the first such Interpretation, which set forth the Division’s current view that loan officers generally cannot qualify for the administrative exemption, the Division’s second Interpretation, issued on June 16, also evinces a pro-employee position and contravenes Opinion Letters issued by the Division during the Bush administration.
Specifically, Deputy Administrator Nancy J. Leppink’s “Interpretation” significantly modifies the Division’s application of § 3(o) of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 203(o), which provides that time spent “changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday” can be non-compensable pursuant to “the express terms” of a collective bargaining agreement, or “by custom or practice” thereunder. This is a vital provision for unionized employers, as pursuant to case law time spent donning and doffing protective equipment is generally compensable unless addressed by the CBA or “custom or practice”. The DOL’s revised position is that: (1) time spent donning and doffing “protective clothing” (e.g., helmets, smocks, plastic aprons, arm guards, gloves, knife holders, etc.) is a compensable activity not subject to § 3(o); and (2) changing into “ordinary clothes” (i.e. a uniform) can commence the compensable workday even if the changing time itself is not compensable. This second conclusion has potentially expansive implications.
As to the first issue, the Interpretation specifically rejects Opinion Letters issued by the DOL in 2002 and 2007 stating that the term “clothes” typically includes such protective equipment, and thus time spent in donning and doffing them can be non-compensable. Deputy Administrator Leppink found that excluding such “protective equipment” from the definition of “clothes” is consistent with Congress’ intent to narrowly circumscribe the 3(o) exclusion. However, in reaching this conclusion, the DOL assumes that § 3(o) is an exemption to an FLSA requirement, and thus is to be construed narrowly, despite the fact that many courts (including multiple Circuit Courts) have ruled that § 3(o) is not an “exemption” but instead a definition of “hours worked”, to be construed broadly. Ms. Leppink relied on DOL Opinion Letters issued in 1997, 1998 and early 2001 stating that “protective equipment” was not clothes for purposes of 3(o). (All three of these opinion letters were issued by the Clinton administration.) Deputy Administrator Leppink acknowledged that recent Circuit Court decisions were consistent with the 2002 and 2007 Opinion Letters and contrary to the DOL’s new position. The Interpretation attempts to distinguish those appellate court decisions, but the new position of DOL cannot be reconciled with them.
In a second and potentially much more controversial opinion, Ms. Leppink stated that even if “changing clothes” is excluded from “hours worked” under § 3(o) and is non-compensable, it nevertheless can be a principal activity that may starts the continuous compensable workday if it is otherwise a “principal activity.” The FLSA provides that employees are entitled to compensation for all hours worked from the beginning of the first “principal activity,” until the end of the last “principal activity,” including any task which is “integral and indispensible” to those principal activities. The 2007 Opinion Letter and numerous court decisions which held that where § 3(o) excludes from “hours worked” the time cannot start the compensable work day. Ms. Leppink rejected that position and referred to the conclusions in the 2007 Opinion Letter as “conclusory.” An argument can be made that such an interpretation renders § 3(o) meaningless and is directly contrary to the legislative history of the statute. The DOL’s new position as set forth in the Interpretation, is that any time spent following clothes changing, including time spent walking or commuting to an employee’s actual work station, is now compensable regardless of whether the employer is unionized or § 3(o) is applicable, unless the employer can demonstrate such changing time is not integral and indispensable.
All employers should carefully review their practices regarding whether any mandatory attire worn by employees constitutes a “uniform”, and whether changing time and/or time immediately following changing time is compensable in light of this Interpretation due to the expansive nature of its language. Unionized employers who have negotiated time donning and doffing protective clothing as non-compensable must carefully consider whether to continue such a practice. An influx of FLSA claims, especially against unionized employers who have availed themselves of § 3(o), is likely and it will be up to the courts to decide whether to adopt the DOL’s modified positions.