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Wage and Hour Division (WHD)

*This letter has been withdrawn. See Administrator Interpretation 2010-2 .


June 6, 2002

Dear Name*,

This responds to your letter of December 12, 2001, on behalf of Name* requesting reconsideration of two opinion letters issued by the Acting Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division and the Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, respectively, on December 3, 1997, and January 15, 2001. The opinion letters concern application of section 3(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 203(o), to employees in the meat packing industry. Specifically, the letters set forth the position that section 3(o) does not apply to the putting on, taking off, or washing of the protective safety equipment typically worn in the meat packing industry, such as mesh aprons, plastic belly guards, mesh sleeves or plastic arm guards, wrist wraps, mesh gloves, rubber gloves, polar sleeves, rubber boots, shin guards, and weight belts.

As noted in the January 15, 2001 opinion letter, the construction of section 3(o) enunciated in the December 3, 1997 Opinion Letter had never previously been put forward by the Administrator. Further, a number of regional and district officials of the Wage and Hour Division and the Office of the Solicitor had, in their enforcement of some cases, historically applied section 3(o) if a bona fide collective bargaining agreement excluded from hours worked the time spent by employees putting on, taking off and cleaning protective equipment.

We have completed a careful review of the interpretation of section 3(o) set forth in these opinion letters, as well as in the opinion letter issued by the Acting Administrator on February 18, 1998. It is our view, based upon a reexamination of the statute and legislative history that the "changing clothes" referred to in section 3(o) applies to the putting on and taking off of the protective safety equipment typically worn in the meat packing industry, as described in your letter. It remains our view, however, that the term "washing" in section 3(o) applies only to washing of the person and does not apply to the cleaning or sanitizing of protective equipment. Accordingly, for the reasons set forth below, we are withdrawing as of this date the opinion letters dated December 3, 1997, February 18, 1998, and January 15, 2001 (as it relates to section 3(o)).

Section 3(o) of the FLSA, enacted in 1949, provides that an employer does not have to pay for time spent "changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday" if such time is excluded from working time "by the express terms or by custom or practice under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement." 29 U.S.C. § 203(o). (We take no position in this letter on what constitutes a custom or practice for purposes of excluding time under section 3(o), or on whether there is such a custom or practice by any employers in your industry.) The FLSA does not define the term "changing clothes or washing" for purposes of section 3(o), and we do not believe that a plain meaning of the term is evident from the statute. One dictionary defines "clothes" as "garments for the body; articles of dress; wearing apparel" (The Random House College Dictionary (revised ed. 1982)), and another defines "clothes" as "articles, usually of cloth, designed to cover, protect or adorn the body." (Webster's New World Dictionary (2d college ed. 1982)) (emphases added). See also 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1050 App. A (OSHA regulations characterizing "face shields" as a kind of "protective clothing") (emphasis added). The Department's interpretative regulations on "hours worked," published in 1965, merely repeat the terms "changing clothes" and "washing." See 29 C.F.R. § 785.26.

The legislative history is specific only with respect to the interpretation of "washing." The House version of section 3(o) would have allowed the elimination from hours worked of any activity of an employee as provided by the express terms of, or custom or practice under, a collective bargaining agreement. See S. Rep. No. 640 (1949), reprinted in 1949 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2241, 2255. The conference committee explained that it narrowed the scope of the provision by "limit[ing] this exclusion to time spent by the employee in changing clothes and cleaning his person at the beginning or at the end of the workday." Id. (emphasis added). This explicitly narrow reading of "washing" is supported by a statement in the debates that describes the conference agreement as "limit[ing]" the provision's application "to time spent in changing clothes or washing (including bathing) at the beginning or end of each workday." 95 Cong. Rec. 14875 (1949). See also 29 C.F.R. § 790.7(g) & n. 49 (interpretative rule addressing the Portal-to-Portal Act's test for preliminary or postliminary activities using the phrases "changing clothes" and "washing up or showering"); Wage and Hour Division's Field Operations Handbook 31b01 (using the phrase "wash up time" in discussing section 3(o) and "hours worked").

The legislative history does not specifically address the scope of "changing clothes" under section 3(o). The provision was enacted subsequent to the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947, which in turn was enacted in response to the Supreme Court's decision in Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680 (1946). In Mt. Clemens, the Supreme Court held that the time that employees spent walking to and from their work stations on the employer's premises was "hours worked." 328 U.S. at 691-92. The Court also found compensable, as a necessary prerequisite to the employees' production work, such preliminary activities as putting on aprons and overalls, removing shirts, taping or greasing arms, putting on finger sheaths, preparing equipment, turning on switches for lights and machinery, opening windows, and assembling and sharpening tools. Id. at 692-93.

The legislative history indicates that some clothes changing was expected to remain compensable after enactment of the Portal Act, and the Supreme Court has so held. See Steiner v. Mitchell, 350 U.S. 247 (1956). During debate on the Act, one of the bill's sponsors stated that the clothes changing and showering that might be required of "chemical plant workers" would remain a compensable principal activity. 93 Cong. Rec. 2297-98 (1947). The Supreme Court appended this legislative history to its decision in Steiner, where it held that the time spent by workers in a battery plant changing into and out of old work clothes and showering was compensable. Although "changing clothes and showering under normal conditions ... ordinarily constitute 'preliminary' or 'postliminary' activities excluded from compensable work time" under the Portal Act, the Court ruled, clothes changing and showering under the circumstances of this case are "an integral and indispensable part of the production of batteries." 350 U.S. at 249, 255-56. Thus, while the Portal Act excluded "ordinary" clothes changing from compensable time, other clothes changing that was not "merely a convenience to the employee" and that was "directly related to the specific work" remained compensable (93 Cong. Rec. 2297-98 (1947)).

The function of section 3(o) is to allow companies and unions to agree to treat as non-compensable clothes-changing activities that otherwise would be compensable under the Portal Act. In stating that the Act invalidates such agreements in the case of protective gear in the meat packing industry, the 1997 opinion letter confined its reasoning to a single sentence where it explained that "clothes" has a "plain meaning" which excludes (i) "protective" articles that (ii) may be "cumbersome in nature" and (iii) are "worn over . apparel." Upon review, we have concluded that none of these qualities should prohibit a company and union from regarding the gear worn in the meat packing industry as clothes for purposes of section 3(o).

The Department of Labor has described articles worn for protective purposes as clothing, and so has a leading dictionary. See 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1050 App. A (OSHA regulations characterizing "face shields" as a kind of "protective clothing"); Webster's New World Dictionary (2d college ed. 1982) ("clothes" are "articles, usually of cloth, designed to cover, protect or adorn the body ..."). The Supreme Court has used the phrase "protective clothing" on more than one occasion. See, e.g., Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO v. American Petroleum Institute, 448 U.S. 607, 660-61 (1980) (the "Benzene" case) (plurality) (stating that compliance with an OSHA requirement "could be achieved simply by the use of protective clothing, such as impermeable gloves"); United States v. Stanley, 483 U.S. 669, 671, 690 (1987) (referring to clothing to protect from chemical exposure and radiation). Congress, in enacting the Portal Act, and the Supreme Court, in interpreting it in Steiner, recognized that the purpose of clothing specially worn for the workplace might well be protection. Indeed, it was in part precisely because the clothing at issue served protective purposes that, in the legislative debates and Steiner, Congress and the Court indicated that donning and doffing the clothing at issue was "integral" to the job and, accordingly, compensable.

That an article may be "cumbersome" also is no indication that it is not clothing. Many items of clothing are cumbersome. In the case of clothing worn for protective purposes in particular, it often will be more protective if it is larger, heavier, and therefore more cumbersome than street clothes. It would disserve the workers the Fair Labor Standards Act is meant to protect if employers who wished to introduce bulkier and more protective gear in the workplace knew that in doing so they would lose their ability to bargain with their union over the compensability of donning and doffing protective gear. Such an intent should not be attributed to Congress in interpreting 3(o). In addition to lacking basis in the statutory text and legislative intent, a distinction between apparel that is "cumbersome" and that which is not is vague, difficult to administer, and fails to provide useful guidance to employers and unions regarding the legitimate parameters of their agreements and practices.

Finally, that an item is worn on top of another item plainly is no reason to believe they are not both items of clothing.

There are other bases in the history and purpose of section 3(o) for concluding that a broader interpretation of the provision is appropriate. It is reasonable to assume that when Congress enacted section 3(o), it had in mind the kind of "clothing" at issue in the Mt. Clemens case just three years earlier; that case involved aprons and overalls, shirts, and finger sheaths. Finally, a less rigid definition of "clothes" comports with Congress's intent in enacting section 3(o), which was to give a measure of deference on this aspect of wage-hour practice to the agreements and judgments shared by companies and their employees' duly-designated representatives for purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of employment. See 95 Cong. Rec. 11210 (1949).

In sum, for the foregoing reasons we believe that the term "clothes" in section 3(o) includes the protective safety equipment typically worn by meat packing employees. Accordingly, we interpret "clothes" under section 3(o) to include items worn on the body for covering, protection, or sanitation, but not to include tools or other implements such as knives, scabbards, or meat hooks. Furthermore, the term "washing" refers only to washing of the person, and not to the washing, cleaning, or sanitizing of protective or safety equipment. See Saunders v. John Morrell & Co., 1 WH Cases 2d 879 (N.D. Iowa 1991).


Tammy D. McCutchen


Note: * The actual name(s) was removed to preserve privacy.