LITTLE ROCK — A baby-food manufacturer should not have to pay employees for time they spent dressing and cleaning themselves, off the clock, an attorney for Gerber reportedly argued last week before the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Workers at the Gerber Products Co. facility in Fort Smith seek more than $3 million in unpaid overtime wages for the time it took them to don the clothing necessary to work at the facility.
The Arkansas Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether employees must be paid for the time it takes to apply and remove special protective gear to perform their duties and whether collective bargaining agreements with unions — which preclude the time in factoring in wages — are valid.
Attorneys for Gerber hope the high court will reverse a 2015 Sebastian County Circuit Court ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. The defendants claim a collective bargaining agreement between the workers’ union and the company prohibits the workers from being paid for the time taken to put on their work attire.
Gerber tried twice unsuccessfully to have the case remanded to federal court where the Fair Labor Standards Act allows unions to exclude the time it takes to don and doff protective clothing from employees’ pay. However, there is no such exemption under Arkansas state law and up until now the workers have successfully used the state’s minimum wage laws to advocate for their unpaid overtime wages.
The plaintiffs’ lawsuit claims it takes an employee anywhere from 14 to 20 minutes at the start and end of every shift to put on and take off the protective sanitary equipment necessary to perform their duties. Over the years, this has translated into millions of dollars in back overtime pay, about $3.1 million, according to the suit. That amount could rise once interest is calculated.
Other similar claims relating to donning and duffing work gear have been filed around the country. One against Tyson Foods resulted in a $7.75 million settlement in federal court with workers. Suit in Arkansas against a poultry processor and Nestle also allege employees should be paid for the time it takes them to put on their required work gear.
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