US DOL Issues New Adminstrator Interpretation

The U.S. Department of Labor is not waiting around for employers and employees to request informal opinion letters. The administrator is busy reviewing its previous letters and issuing new Administrator Interpretations. These are not the same as official regulations, but they give you an idea of how the department will enforce its laws.

The department issued its second such letter yesterday. This one addresses "donning and doffing" - basically whether changing at the beginning and end of the shift constitutes "preliminary" or "postliminary" activity (non-compensable under federal law) or compensable work time.

The issue arises under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, as modified by the Portal-to-Portal Act:

Section 3(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides that time spent “changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday” is excluded from compensable time under the FLSA if the time is excluded from compensable time pursuant to “the express terms or by custom or practice” under a collective bargaining agreement. 29 U.S.C. § 203(o).

In 1997, the DOL issued an opinion letter saying that meat packing employees' putting on "protective" clothing or gear, such as smocks, arm guards, belly guards, gloves, etc. was compensable time because these items were not considered "clothes." In 2002 and 2007, the DOL retreated from this position and held that donning/doffing "protective clothing" could be considered "clothes," excluded from work time.

In its Administrative Interpretation, No. 2010-2, the DOL returns to its 1997 interpretation. After reviewing the legislative history and court decisions, the DOL says:

the § 203(o) exemption does not extend to protective equipment worn by employees that is required by law, by the employer, or due to the nature of the job. This interpretation reaffirms the interpretations set out in the 1997, 1998 and 2001 opinion letters and is consistent with the “plain meaning” analysis of the Ninth Circuit in Alvarez. Those portions of the 2002 opinion letter that address the phrase “changing clothes” and the 2007 opinion letter in its entirety, which are inconsistent with this interpretation, should no longer be relied upon.

The DOL then went a step further. The DOL opined that changing clothes, even if not compensable, may constitute a "principal activity" where changing is integral to the job. When changing is considered a "principal activity," it starts the work day. The activities that follow are part of the work day and compensable, even if they would not be compensable by themselves. So, if changing clothes is a "principal activity," then walking from the locker to the work area is also compensable under the "continuous workday" doctrine:

it is the Administrator’s interpretation that clothes changing covered by § 203(o) may be a principal activity. Where that is the case, subsequent activities, including walking and waiting, are compensable. The Administrator issues this interpretation to assist employees and employers in all industries to better understand the scope of the § 203(o) exemption.
This interpretation is highly significant in industries where employees change clothes at the beginning and end of the shift, even when they do not necessarily wear "protective clothing" or equipment. That is because time that otherwise would not be compensable may become so if the clothes changing is considered a "principal activity."

The Obama administration's DOL, run by former California legislature member Hilda Solis, is awake. Employers should not ignore the federal agency, even in California.
The new interpretation is posted here.