What’s In a Name? Supreme Court Argues Over Definition of Clothing

joustingAs a 20-something, I know how much time it takes for my friends and I to get dressed to go…anywhere. We might think picking out a top is one of life’s greatest struggle, but thankfully we don’t have to deal with getting dressed up in the serious kind of gear that workers in the steel industry have to wear. Should they be compensated for the time it takes them to get dressed and un-dressed for work every day? The case has made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

If you have the time, I highly suggest you read all of the court’s quotes highlighted in the article from The Atlantic. Their musings are really quite entertaining, but also thought provoking. After all, the suits that steelworkers are required by law to wear include flame-retardant jackets and pants, leggings, Kevlar sleeves, gloves, steel-toed boots, hard hats, safety glasses, earplugs and hoods. Whew! I can imagine it takes some time to get that off and on. They’re wearing all this for work purposes; I hardly imagine they go out of their worksite looking like that.

This case started when a large group of steelworkers at a plant in Gary, Indiana asked their employer for compensation for their changing time. Now the Supreme Court is debating if there is a difference between garment and gear in the case Sandifer v United States Steel Corporation.

Justice Kagan wondered why there is no government issued regulation on the “what are clothes?” question. Even for educated folk like the nine Supreme Court justices, the question is difficult to answer. Allegedly the court proceedings were a little quirkier than what they usually argue in the chamber. Chain mail, knife scabbards, toupees and jousters were brought into the conversation. Justice Sotomayor paralleled steelworkers to “the space people who put on that complicated white suit.” I wonder how long it takes them to don their robes?

I consider this a workers’ comp issue. The items steelworkers use are designed and worn to protect from workplace hazards, and failure to wear protective clothing properly may result in an injury at work. Failing to wash or store that clothing properly can also result in mishaps. If workers are rushing in and out of work or if they neglect to go through the process the right way because they don’t care about time spent technically “outside of work”, they could put themselves or others in harm’s way. It will be interesting to see how this case is settled, though we won’t know for a few months. For the time being, it looks like the steelworkers will have to put their flame-retardant pants on just like the rest of us- one leg at a time.

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