Supreme Court on “Donning, Doffing & Walking”

November 8th, 2005 by

In a ruling (New York Times, free registration required) surprising for its rare unanimity, the U.S. Supreme court just came down on the side of meatpacking workers. The decision in IBP Inc. v. Alvarez involved whether workers should be paid for the time between putting on personal protective equipment (“donning”) and walking to the actual site where the ferociously unpleasant work takes place. The employer argued that under the “portal-to-portal” concept, the workers were on their own until they got to the actual job site and punched the time clock; and on their own once again, as they walked bloodied (but, one hopes, not bowed) at the end of the shift back to the dressing room. The court — subliminally aware perhaps of their own donning and doffing of black robes — decided that the walk to and from the production line required payment of wages. Let’s hear it for the Supremes, who got this one right.
It doesn’t seem that a lot of money was at stake (how far is the production line from the dressing room?), but when you consider the number of meatpackers, perhaps the employers are indeed facing, as the industry argued, “vast new costs.”
Comp not an Issue
Regardless of how the court ruled in this situation, the meatpackers would be covered by workers comp in their walk from the dressing room to the production line and back. Many workers are “in the course and scope of employment” for workers comp purposes even when they are not being paid.
When I think of these hard working people heading to and from their singularly unpleasant tasks, covered each shift with the remnants of their bloody work, I don’t begrudge them getting paid for the walk in and the walk out. If these wages result in a few extra cents in the price of beef, pork and chicken, so be it. They’ve earned it.