In a just released United States Supreme Court opinion, the Justices ruled 6-2 in favor of employees in an appeal of a class action lawsuit. The case is called Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo. The employees work in the kill, cut, and re-trim departments of a Tyson Foods’ Iowa pork processing plant. The employees are required to wear protective gear. Employees are paid for “gang time”, that is, the time spent at their workstations. From 1998 until 2007 employees were also paid for “K-code time.” This period of time was the amount of time it took the employee to put on and off their protective gear. Tyson Foods paid employees for four minutes for this time every day. In 2007, they discontinued this practice for some employees but continued it for others. Employees who were unhappy with this decision filed suit against the company for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”).
Under the FLSA, employees who work more than 40 hours per week must be compensated for that overtime work. Though employees don’t have to be paid for every single moment they spend at work the are required to be paid for “activities ‘integral and indispensable’ to their regular work, even if those activities do not occur at the employee’s workstation.” In their lawsuit, employees “alleged that donning and doffing protective gear were integral and indispensable to their hazardous work and that petitioner’s policy not to pay for those activities denied them overtime compensation required by the FLSA.”
In addition, employees raised a state law claim. They sought certification as a class under state law and certification as a collective action under the FLSA. Tyson Foods objected contending that “because of the variance in protective gear each employee wore, the employees’ claims were not sufficiently similar to be resolved on a classwide basis.” The District Court rejected this claim finding that there was a common question among class members, namely, “‘whether the donning and doffing of [protective gear] is considered work under the FLSA, whether such work is integral and [in] dispensable, and whether any compensable work is de minim[i]s.'”
The jury found for the employees and Tyson Foods appealed the ruling, first to the Eight Circuit which affirmed the judgment from the District Court, and then to the Supreme Court. The main question at issue before the court was whether or not the employees could use representative evidence. As Tyson Foods had not kept records of how long employees spent putting and taking off their gear, the employees had to rely on other means to prove their case. They relied on employee testimony, video recordings, and a study that averaged the amount of time employees spent “donning and doffing” their gear. Tyson Foods objected to the use of an average time, rather than an individual employee’s specific time. The court found that the use of a representative sample was appropriate under the circumstances. The court stated that “respondents sought to introduce a representative sample to fill an evidentiary gap created by the employer’s failure to keep adequate records.” The court affirmed the judgment of the Eight Circuit.