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Federal Judge Rules Against Tyson In Kansas Plant Pay Case

DowJonesNewswires - Richard Gibson

A federal district judge has ruled in favor of workers at a Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN) beef-processing plant seeking to be paid for time spent donning protective clothing, then removing the safety gear after work.

Tyson, the world's largest meatpacker, had sought summary judgments blocking the compensation claims, first brought by employees at the Holcomb, Kan., facility last May. A similar case was filed against the company in Sioux City, Iowa, earlier this month. Tyson now pays knife-wielding workers for four minutes to don and doff special protective clothing, but the lawsuit would also cover employees who are required to wear items such as hair nets, hard hats, gloves and earplugs.

In ruling in the Kansas matter last Friday, U.S. District Judge John W. Lungstrum rejected Tyson's motions, apparently clearing the way for the plaintiffs to seek class-action status.

The judge noted that while Fair Labor Standards Act "typically requires employers to pay their employees for all time spent working on their behalf," Congress never precisely defined "work," leaving it up to the courts to determine that on a case-by-case basis.

While Tyson attorneys contended that a 1994 case, Reich v. IBP Inc., determined that donning and doffing protective clothing wasn't work, the judge disagreed. He wrote that if the court in that case were to revisit the issue, it would analyze it differently in light of subsequent cases, particularly another involving IPB, titled IBP Inc. v. Alvarez in 2005.

In that, the Supreme Court ruled that any activity that is "integral and indispensable" to a "principal activity," or work situation, is compensable, Judge Lungstrum concluded.

He also left open whether four minutes was adequate time to put on and remove special protective clothing and gear worn by those wielding cleavers and knives on the assembly line. Plaintiffs contended that it often takes much longer than that to dress for the job.

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