BALTIMORE (AP) -- A judge has ruled that under federal law, certain unionized poultry workers must be paid for time spent putting on and taking off protective gear.
Rejecting Arkansas-based Mountaire Farms Inc.'s claim that workers are not allowed to sue because their union's agreement already provides for time spent changing clothes, U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis wrote the opinion published Tuesday.
''At bottom, defendant posits an overly expansive definition of 'clothes' that does not distinguish between everyday clothing and personal protective gear,'' Davis wrote.
The decision comes in a collective action on behalf of 425 employees, who claim Mountaire failed to pay overtime at two southern Delaware plants in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and two state laws.
The ruling permits 150 plaintiffs at the Selbyville, Del., plant who are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers and International Brotherhood of Teamsters to proceed with their lawsuit. If the collective bargaining agreement had covered ''donning and doffing,'' or clothes changing, under FLSA, the collective bargaining agreement would prevail.
C. Christopher Brown is an attorney for the plaintiffs. He said the opinion is the first by a court within the 4th U.S. Circuit to deal with the apparel distinction.
Brown said it takes 20 minutes for each worker to put on and take off required gear, including a lab coat, ear plugs, a cap, apron, hair net, safety glasses, steel-toed boots and gloves.
James L. Hughes, an attorney for Mountaire and its co-defendant Mountaire Farms of Delaware Inc., declined comment because the case is continuing. A spokesman for Mountaire referred a call for comment to company Vice President for Operations Michael Tirrell, who was out of the office Thursday, The (Baltimore) Daily Record reported.
There will be a trial on the remaining issues, including the calculation of damages and whether the ''donning and doffing'' time illegally encroaches on the workers' half-hour lunch break.
Brown said the plaintiffs, who are among the more than 3,000 production line workers at the two chicken plants, earn an average of $8 an hour, performing tasks such as hanging live chickens on hooks.
''It's the kind of work that nobody else wants to do,'' said Brown. ''You or I wouldn't last a day.''