All in a day’s work? Steelworkers’ case highlights shifting American workday

BY Katelyn Polantz  November 3, 2013 at 12:54 PM EDT

Workers at this Indiana steel mill contend that the time they spend putting on their protective gear counts as work. Their employer U.S. Steel disagrees. The case will be argued before the Supreme Court Monday. Photo by Flickr user reallyboring

Hundreds of the 5,000 workers at U.S. Steel’s Gary Works begin their day at one of the factory’s 22 locker rooms. They don jackets, pants, work gloves, Kevlar sleeves, steel-toed boots, eye protection, earplugs and hard hats. Then they travel, sometimes on buses, to where the labor begins.The gear protects them from the molten steel, fire and dangerous equipment along the mill’s 7-mile stretch of blast furnaces and coke ovens.

But they don’t earn pay for the time it takes them to change and get to their workstations.

Eight hundred former and current workers say they should have been paid for that time. In theory, that would mean overtime pay. But their employer U.S. Steel argues that the time in the locker room and on the bus doesn’t qualify as part of a day’s work, as defined by a union contract from 1947.

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider both sides in a hearing scheduled for Monday.

At issue is a simple legal question: Is putting on the safety gear in locker rooms at the mill considered just changing clothes, or is it federally regulated work? But the case raises another idea: What starts and ends the American workday, and how has that changed over decades?

Guaranteed overtime pay isn’t a reality for many U.S. jobs. Workers fall into one of two categories under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Employers are required to pay certain workers known as non-exempt employees 1.5 times their wage for overtime when they work beyond 40 hours a week.

Then there are the “exempt” employees, whose days aren’t federally regulated. These workers earn yearly salaries, often performing white collar or management-level jobs. They earn no overtime.

For them, a workday is harder to define.

“The minute you tear away the material component of work, the minute you shift it to sharing faxes or emails, there’s no boundary,” Mike Rose, an education professor at UCLA who writes about social class and work, told the NewsHour. “Putting on those heavy duty clothes is about as material you can get. You’re putting on highly protective gear because you’re about to confront something that can kill you.”

Hourly workers, the rough equivalent of the “non-exempt” group, made up 59 percent of the American labor force last year. But the number of workers who do physical labor declines each year. For instance, the percentage of industry employees, in manufacturing, mining and construction, has shriveled from 17 percent of the U.S. workforce in 1980 to 10 percent last year.

Yet the Fair Labor Standards Act has seen few changes since its passage 75 years ago, with the exception of the federal minimum wage creeping higher. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, and some states and localities are working on increasing theirs. (The NewsHour will have more on this Monday and Tuesday.) With few changes in the 1938 law, a disconnect has grown between the law and the realities of the job.

The steelworkers in the Gary Works case say advances in protective gear contributed to their lawsuit. Safety practices have changed. In the 1930s factory, fire-proof gear didn’t exist. Steelworkers in the 1930s and ’40s went shirtless to accommodate the intense heat from the metal.

Workplace consultant and author Cali Williams Yost called the Fair Labor Standards Act “a bit of an anachronism.” But, she said, to lose it would be to open a Pandora’s box of workplace abuses, deregulating how employers treat employees.

“There are ways to do this, but there has to be an openness to look outside of the traditional model of work and work hours,” she said.

Tom Denham, a career counselor and founder of Careers in Transition LLC in Albany, N.Y., blames the Internet for the shifting workday.

“I ask at seminars, ‘When does the workday end?’ And the most common response is, ‘It doesn’t,’ ” he said. “Twenty-five years ago no one said that.”

He’s talking about “exempt” workers, that category of people whose jobs often rely heavily on communication, networking, phone calls and emails.

Their world revolves around an information-based economy, one whose orbit may suck in hourly, non-exempt workers too: A secretary who must respond to his boss or a computer technician who can log on from home. Even in manufacturing, workers may feel the need to do certain tasks from home because they can.

Some non-exempt workers have found ways to manage the evolved workplace. Yost cites a group of bank secretaries she counseled who sketched out a more flexible schedule to cover for each other. To the benefit of their bank, the group expanded the time they collectively worked each day by more than an hour, Yost said.

Of course, the Fair Labor Standards Act as a whole isn’t at risk in this Supreme Court case. Lawyers test the act hundreds of times a year, and this quibble happened to rise to the top of the federal court system. Still, in terms of visibility, the case lands far down the list of potentially explosive cases this term, with fights over prayer in government, greenhouse gases and campaign finance getting most of the attention. Other labor-related cases this year have drawn more focus, including one slated for Nov. 13 on union organizing.

A ruling in this case may not have much impact beyond the factory workers, including those who seek change and could see a windfall in back pay if they win. But the case’s lack of attention may indicate a wider cultural shift that raises questions beyond the case itself. As technology advances, are the boundaries of what constitutes an American workday getting blurred? And is the divide between work and personal time in danger of evaporating as well?