In the recent unanimous decision of IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez (November 8, 2005), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified what constitutes compensable time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Specifically, the United States Supreme Court addressed a split between the circuits as to whether time spent walking to the worksite after donning special protective equipment is compensable. The Supreme Court affirmed a Ninth Circuit opinion holding that such time is compensable.
The Supreme Court first held that any time spent engaged in an act that is an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities” of the employment, such as donning or doffing specialized protective gear, is compensable. The Court further held that such time, as an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities,” is itself a principal activity of the employment.
According to the Court, while walking time is generally not compensable under the FLSA, any time spent walking to or from the worksite after engaging in the first principal activity, and before engaging in the last principal activity, of a continuous work day is compensable. The Court explained that walking time after engaging in a principal activity of the job is more akin to walking between two different positions on an assembly line (which is compensable under the FLSA), than to walking to the worksite before the workday begins (which is not compensable under the FLSA).
Finally, the Court held that time spent by an employee waiting to put on protective equipment is not compensable. Rather, the Court held that such waiting time is considered a “preliminary” activity and is specifically excluded from compensation under the FLSA. Thus, under the FLSA, an employer who requires employees to don special protective equipment prior to commencing work must compensate employees for the following time:
- time spent donning the protective equipment at the beginning of the shift
- time spent removing the protective equipment at the end of the shift, and
- time spent walking between the changing area and the worksite at the beginning and end of each shift
However, employers need not compensate employees for time spent waiting to put on their protective equipment, such as time spent walking to the site where clothing and equipment is obtained and time spent waiting to punch in and out for such clothing or equipment.
California employers should be aware, however, that the definition of “hours worked” under California law is broader in certain respects than it is under the FLSA. Under California law, employers must compensate employees for “time during which an employee is subject to the control of an employer.” Accordingly, time spent waiting to put on protective equipment, while not compensable under the FLSA, may be compensable under California law.