In a decision published December 29, 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that a unionized poultry processor with a history of not paying employees for time spent changing and washing sanitary and protective gear did not violate the Fair Labor Standards Act because Congress left decisions about compensation for clothes changing to the collective bargaining process.

“This is a significant, pro-employer decision in the long-running donning-and-doffing debate,” said the law firm of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider & Stine, P.C., in a press statement.

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The employees in Sepulveda v. Allen Family Farms sued their employer for wages for time they had spent putting on, removing and sanitizing sanitary and protective gear they were required to wear for their jobs at the employer’s poultry processing facility in Delaware. The plant was unionized, and although the union had asked for compensation for these activities in negotiations in 2002, they had never secured it through collective bargaining, according to the law firm.

The Fourth Circuit also rejected the employees’ claim for compensation for the portions of their meal breaks spent removing, washing and putting on protective gear, finding that those activities were excluded from compensable time because they were part of a bona fide meal break and required insignificant amounts of time.