Supreme Court case shows tiniest details matter in employment law cases

Every week, businesses make dozens of decisions regarding employees. Practicing employment law means recognizing that any one of those decisions can come back to haunt a large company or small business at any time.

This is why Scaringi Law

For Sipe, the most recent case that intrigued him involved a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on whether a company owed its current and past employees huge amounts of back pay for time spent changing into protective gear.

As with all employment law, the case hinged on the wording of labor contracts and how the high court would interpret the Fair Labor Standards Act.

"The larger message here is to make sure employers are very clear about what their rights are and what their employees' rights are," says Sipe, who pens an employment law blog called the "Employer's Lawyer" at www.employers-lawyer.com.

"Then, you need to make sure you are walking that line," he says. "Bargaining, the contract rules, labor law -- the employer must know and respect these things. With written agreements, there is no 'he said, she said.' It is there in the agreement."

Good advice on employment law helps prevent costly litigation

Retaining an attorney skilled in employment law can save an employer from expensive litigation in the long run. Being on the wrong side of labor law or employment contracts can be costly. In a world where profit and loss determine whether a company succeeds or fails, the wrong verdict can mean bankruptcy or something close to it.

"It's always a good idea to know what you can and can't do under these employment laws," says Sipe, who interprets such laws and makes their impact on individual businesses and workplaces clear to all of his corporate and small-business clients.

Even the way a company calculates and issues paychecks can be fraught with legal peril. An adverse decision on back pay, which includes an award of attorney's fees, interest and court costs, can deal a severe financial blow to an employer.

"Work time, overtime, minimum wage -- it's important to know how to pay your employees," Sipe says. "If you don't, you can be liable for a significant sum of money. Even a small miscalculation over a long period of time can be huge amounts of money."

Such was the case in Sandifer v. U.S. Steel. Some 800 current and former U.S. Steel employees filed suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act for back pay for time spent "donning and doffing'' protective gear that U.S. Steel required them to wear.

The case would turn on how the Supreme Court would interpret sections of the Fair Labor Standards Act that allow parties to collectively bargain over whether "time spent changing clothes ... at the beginning and end of each workday" is compensable. Even terms as seemingly simple as "clothes" and "changing" would require specific legal definitions and precise court interpretation.

"This is not just two minutes to put on and two minutes to take off clothes," Sipe says of the safety gear at issue in the case. "It is fairly time-consuming. Steel plants are dangerous places. And the amount awarded would have been fairly significant."

In other words, a company with tight margins faced a possible make-or-break moment that would turn on employment law. It's a situation faced every day by all kinds of employers. Sipe knows this because he has seen these issues, studied and researched them and applied the law to protect employers and to fairly deal with employees.

When it comes to employment law issues, business must remain proactive, not reactive

"The best way to handle these situations is to get out in front of them," Sipe says, echoing the employment law message he gives to all of his business clients. "If you have questions, you should contact a labor law lawyer to review the situation. It is always cheaper and easier to get out in front of these things before a lawsuit is filed."

Even the grievance of one employee can grow into a big problem if the situation isn't addressed. Many times something as simple as a letter from the employer's lawyer explaining matters can put the worker's concerns to rest.

"We have done that before," Sipe says. "An employee feels they are being wronged. The owner should immediately be on the phone to their lawyer. Even if a lawsuit has no grounds, it still costs money to deal with."

The right explanation from an experienced employment lawyer can help set things right and return an unsettled workplace to normal.

"We can give a legal answer that the employer and the employee can understand, and more times than not, that is enough to make the problem go away,'' Sipe says. "Contrary to popular belief, people are not always looking to bring a lawsuit.''

At the other extreme, an employment law case can travel all the way to the Supreme Court, as did Sandifer v. U.S. Steel.

In the end, the Court ruled that donning and doffing items such as protective jackets, pants, hard hats, gloves and boots all fell under the legal umbrella of clothing and that time spent getting in and out of these items could be bargained away, as the court found was done in the U.S. Steel case. The justices found the workers were bound by their collective bargaining agreement, which said employees are paid only for time at their work stations.

The court also ruled that items such safety glasses, ear plugs and respirators were not "clothes" and the time spent putting on and taking off these items was minimal and not subject to compensation.

One company wins in court, yet the workplace remains a minefield of potential litigation

While U.S. Steel won its case and avoided a huge payout to employees, there is never a guarantee when a case heads to court.

Businesses always need to keep a keen watch for issues in the workplace. An employer who consults with an experienced employment lawyer can help clear up potential problems, allowing the company and its workers to move forward together.

"Usually, word from the boss that he has talked to his lawyer or a letter from the lawyer is enough to quell the issue," Sipe says. "We really lay it out. We cite the case law. And when the employees see those precedents, they are more likely to back off."

Then, all involved can get back to why they are there: the work.

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