MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Workers can’t negotiate away their right to compensation for time spent donning and removing protective gear, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a long-running legal battle between a Jefferson County farm and its employees.
Nearly 230 current and former workers of Jones Dairy Farm in Fort Atkinson sued in 2010 seeking unpaid wages for time spent donning and taking off their gear at the beginning and end of their shifts. The average amount of wages sought by each employee is about $675 per year for five years, according to court documents.
The farm argued that the workers had given up the right to compensation for time spent dressing during collective bargaining. The farm also argued that the de minimus doctrine applies in the case.
That doctrine permits employers to disregard otherwise compensable work that takes only a few seconds or minutes beyond scheduled working hours.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge William Hue in 2018 rejected those arguments. The farm appealed and the state appellate court kicked the case directly to the state Supreme Court.
The court ruled 4-3 to uphold Hue’s decision, finding that state law doesn’t allow for modifying compensation for donning and removing personal protective gear through collective bargaining. The time employees spent dressing and undressing was not de minimus, the court went on to say, noting that the time translates to several hundred dollars a year.
The rulings don’t end the case, however. The justices sent the lawsuit back to the circuit-court level after finding that Hue failed to analyze the farm’s other arguments, including that the wages would unjustly enrich the employees.
The farm’s attorney, Bernard Bobber, didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.