By Amanda Becker
(Reuters) - Steel workers who do their jobs wearing flame-retardant gear tried to convince the Supreme Court on Monday that they should be paid for the time they spend "donning and doffing" such items before and after their shifts.
In a case with potential impact for unionized workers in other workplaces, such as poultry processing and meat packing plants, the Supreme Court struggled to clearly define the difference between clothing and protective gear.
The distinction matters because federal labor law excludes "changing clothes" from the time for which unionized employees must be paid, unless they have negotiated otherwise.
Roughly 800 current and former workers at U.S. Steel's Gary, Indiana plant, say that flame-retardant jackets and pants, work gloves, wristlets, hard hats and other items they have to wear are "personal protective equipment," not clothing.
United States Steel Corp disagrees, saying any wearable item is clothing. As a result, it says, it should not have to pay unionized employees for "donning and doffing."
In court arguments on Monday, the Supreme Court justices reached no firm conclusions. Justice Antonin Scalia said items such as eye glasses and wristwatches are not clothing. "The problem is to fashion a standard" that works, he said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Eric Schnapper, the attorney representing the workers, that "a definition that says everything that covers the body goes too far."
Narrowing the definition of "clothing" could be costly to the grocery industry, another sector that could be affected, Littler Mendelson attorney Tammy McCutchen said in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the court on behalf of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
If that industry's 2.5 million workers were entitled to back pay of just 10 minutes a day each, the cost to employers would be $1.6 million for every thousand affected employees.
"It doesn't sound like much, but it adds up really quick," McCutchen told Reuters.
Shares in U.S. Steel were up 4.3 percent at $26.90 each in moderately bullish New York Stock Exchange trading.
The case is Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-417. A decision is likely by late June, when the court's term ends.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Krista Hughes)