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The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to consider whether meat-processing plants must pay their slaughterhouse workers for the time it takes to change into protective clothing and walk to their work stations. Justices will review a pair of lower court rulings examining workers’ rights under federal labor law. One ordered IBP Inc. — now known as Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. — to pay $3.1 million to 815 workers in Pasco, Wash., for the time; the other said 44 employees for Barber Foods in Portland, Maine, weren’t entitled to payment. The ruling could have ramifications for a wide swath of occupations, from nuclear plants to law enforcement, whose employees might spend extra time to perform duties related to their principal line of work. At the IBP plant, workers are required to gather their protective gear, don it in the plant’s locker room and then prepare their work-related tools before entering the slaughter floor. The gear typically consists of a sanitary outer garment, boots, hardhat, goggles and gloves. However, workers are not considered clocked in until they show up, fully equipped, at the assembly line. They also aren’t paid for the time spent changing out of the heavy gear for a 30-minute lunch break and at the end of the work day. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers aren’t required to pay workers for time spent “changing clothes,” but the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that doesn’t matter. Donning protective gear in a hazardous profession is different from changing clothes because the safety protection is “integral and indispensable” to the job. Since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” in 1906, the meatpacking industry has been one of the most regulated but also “one of the most dangerous jobs in America,” Judge Sidney Thomas wrote in the opinion siding with workers. In ruling against employees in Maine, however, the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that time spent changing gear and walking to work stations shouldn’t be compensated, in part because donning the equipment at Barber Foods — labcoats, goggles and earplugs — only takes a few moments. The National Chicken Council and the American Meat Institute had urged the high court to hear the appeal, citing a clear split in the lower courts that had created confusion and added litigation for its member companies. The cases are IBP Inc. v. Alvarez, 03-1238; Tum v. Barber Foods Inc., 04-66. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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