Employer Prevails in Donning and Doffing Case

By Bernie Siebert

On May 6, 2014 Judge Richard P. Matsch of the United States District Court for the District of Colorado ruled that the plaintiffs from a Greeley, Colorado meat processing plant did not prove that they were entitled to additional pay for donning and doffing, walk time and an unpaid meal period.  The case spanned nearly six years and involved two trial proceedings, one trial to determine liability and a second to determine damages.  The decision is attached here.

In 2011, following a weeklong trial, the Court ruled that there was a question as to when the workday begins and ends and a question as to whether employees were receiving a full 30 minute unpaid meal period.  He ordered that a second trial concerning the issue of damages be held.  That trial was held in 2013 with final arguments in January, 2014.

In its May 6th Opinion and Order, the Judge ruled that he was incorrect in believing that the 30 minute meal period was required by law or regulation.  Rather, the Court found that the 30 minute unpaid meal period was a product of the collective bargaining agreement between the company and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.  The Court specifically ruled that there was no legal requirement that a meal period be 30 minutes.  Because the Union never pursued a grievance claiming that employees were not receiving a full thirty minute meal period (which included the time required for donning and doffing), the Court found that the Union had accepted the 30 minute provision knowing that employees were not in fact receiving a full 30 minutes.  The Court then turned to the issue of the compensability of the donning and doffing and walk time.

In 2000 the Company and Union agreed to certain amounts of time for performing donning and doffing, walk to wash and washing tasks.  In 2007, the Company and Union agreed to certain amount of time for walk time at the beginning of the shift.  That agreement was incorporated into the parties’ 2009 agreement.  As part of that agreement, the company paid two years of back walk time to then current employees.  The Union opposed making the same payments to former employees.  At the trial on damages, each side presented expert time study witnesses.  Naturally, the Plaintiffs’ expert testified that employees were substantially underpaid for donning and doffing and walk activities.  The company’s expert testified that employees were being properly compensated for all such activities.  The Court had previously ruled that Section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act applied thus excluding the donning and doffing time at the beginning and end of each shift, primarily leaving open the issues of donning and doffing at the meal period and walk time.  The Court noted that the substantial differences in the amounts calculated by the two experts reflect the difficulty in determining “the realities of the workplace by these methods.”  Ultimately, the Court adopted the findings of the company’s expert.  The Court stated that “…the adversarial process of civil litigation is not designed for adjudicating this dispute and judges are ill-equipped to evaluate the work of industrial engineers doing time studies.”  The Court found because of the conflicting views, that it could not say “with a reasonable probability that Plaintiffs have met their burden of proving their entitlement to additional compensation.”

Finally, the Court stated “It must be admitted that the result now reached is contrary to the expectations generated by the previous Order.  It is, however, the result of careful reflection on the evidence in this case and the court opinions cited above.”  The Court also noted that the Company’s attorney had stated that the company would, to the extent profitable, make the walk time payments to those former employees that did not receive such in 2009.  The Court stated that it took the representation as a pledge to do so.  The case was dismissed with costs awarded to the company.

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