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February 22, 2011
Workers Claim They Are Due Overtime Under State Law

A certified class of current and former production-line workers alleged that, since they were not compensated for time spent donning and doffing required gear and equipment, they were underpaid—in violation of their employment contracts and the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act (MFLSA).

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What happened. Jennie-O Turkey Store, Inc., operates six turkey-processing plants in Minnesota. The company requires production-line workers to wear certain gear and equipment (e.g., boots, pants, smocks, gloves, and hats) to meet sanitation and safety standards. These employees must “don” (i.e., put on) the required gear and equipment before they start their shifts and “doff” (i.e., remove) it at the completion of their shifts. For meal breaks, they must partially don and doff those items.

Before 2007, Jennie-O recorded the times that the hourly production-line employees started and ended their shifts by using a pre-set start time or by having a supervisor “swipe” a time card. The shift ended with individual time-card swipes. However, starting in 2007, a different method was used; the start and end of a shift were determined by individual time-card swipes.

A group of current and former employees filed a class-action suit against the company, contending that neither timekeeping method fully captured the time it took to don and doff, that they were underpaid as a result, and that the company violated their employment contracts and the MFLSA.

The district court granted summary judgment to the employers, dismissing all claims under the MFLSA and the common law of contracts. The district court acknowledged that the workers were not paid for some of their donning and doffing time. But since that time never exceeded 8 hours per employee during a week, the court said the MFSLA’s 48-hour workweek rule was not violated. (The MFLSA requires that an employee be paid at a rate equal to one-and-one-half times his regular rate of pay for time worked in excess of 48 hours per workweek.)

“Even though [appellants] were not paid for every minute spent donning and doffing, they were paid according to the law for overtime compensation,” the district court said. The court also concluded that the company was not obligated by employment agreements to compensate the workers for donning and doffing. The workers appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

What the court said. The appeals court affirmed, saying that the district court did not err in determining that certain employees had been paid consistent with the MFLSA and for all tasks they performed under their employment contract.

The workers had argued that Jennie-O had violated the MFLSA by not paying overtime for hours worked in excess of 48 hours per week, especially when it came to time spent donning and doffing, and by not providing a full 30-minute meal break during each eight-hour shift.

The MFLSA’s 48-hour threshold for overtime compensation is less restrictive than the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which requires that overtime compensation be paid for time worked in excess of 40 hours per workweek. The appeals court said that “because appellants cannot demonstrate that they were paid less than the MFLSA required, the district court properly dismissed the statutory overtime claim.”

In explaining the lower court’s decision, the appeals court said the workers “could not demonstrate that their compensation fell below the amount required by the MFLSA” and that their “compensation—which included overtime compensation for (undisputed) hours worked in excess of 40 as required by the FLSA—so significantly exceeded the compensation required under the MFLSA that, even when the disputed donning and doffing time was included in the calculation, the appellants’ compensation exceeded that required by the MFLSA.”

The court said the workers did not plead their argument regarding meal breaks and that to the extent that they alleged unpaid donning and doffing time before and after breaks, that time was included in the analysis of their statutory overtime claim. Rios, et al. v. Jennie-O Turkey Store, et al., Court of Appeals of Minnesota, No. A10-419 (1/18/11)

Point to remember:Employers need to understand how federal and state wage and hour laws impact employees’ pay, and which law takes precedence.

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