Wednesday, August 4, 2010

7th Circuit Affirms Wisconsin's Donning/Doffing Compensable Time Law

In a decision that perhaps requires a chalkboard and a couple readings to fully grasp, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has held that §203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") does not preempt state law that lacks an equivalent exception.

In Spoerle v. Kraft Foods Global, Inc., the plaintiffs were employees at the Oscar Mayer plant in Madison, Wisconsin that required employees to wear safety gear, such as steel-toed boots and hard hats, plus a smock that keeps other garments clean, and workers also had to wear hair nets and beard nets to protect the food from dandruff and other contaminants. Kraft Foods and the union, Local 538 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, agreed under the collective bargaining agreement that this time is not compensable. As part of the agreement, workers were paid more per hour, which did not sit well with the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs argued that that protective gear is not “clothing” under §203(o), and second that Wisconsin’s own wage-and-hour legislation lacks any equivalent to §20(o). The first argument was immediately shot down and unaddressed in the opinion because precedent already addressed the issue, leaving the second issue standing alone.

Kraft argued that §203(o) preempts Wisconsin law. The Seventh Circuit disagreed.
Management and labor acting jointly (through a CBA) have no more power to override state substantive law than they have when acting individually. Imagine a CBA saying: “Our drivers can travel at 85 mph, without regard to posted speed limits, so that they can deliver our goods in fewer compensable hours of work time.” That clause would be ineffectual. And a CBA reading instead that “our drivers can travel at a reasonable rate of speed, no matter what state law provides” would be equally pointless. Making a given CBA hard to interpret and apply (as the word “reasonable” would be) would not preempt state law on the theory that states must leave the interpretation of CBAs to the National Labor Relations Board and the federal judiciary; states would remain free to enforce laws that disregarded CBAs altogether. That is what Wisconsin does when determining which donning and doffing time is compensable.

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