By Ronald Miller, J.D. A federal district court erred in concluding as a matter of law that the donning and doffing of uniforms, including certain equipment, by park rangers employed by New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation were not compensable activities under the FLSA because they were not integral and indispensable to their principal activities, ruled the Second Circuit. To decide whether the use of protective gear qualifies as integral and indispensable, courts always must determine whether the gear guards against "workplace dangers" that accompany the employee’s principal activities and "transcend ordinary risks." Accordingly, the appeals court vacated the district court’s decision (Perez v. The City of New York, August 2, 2016, Sack, R.). Required uniforms. Park rangers employed by New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation filed a collective action alleging violations of the FLSA, including the employer’s refusal to compensate them for time spent donning and doffing required uniforms. The uniforms are comprised of both professional clothing and equipment. The equipment includes a bulletproof vest and a utility belt holding handcuffs, gloves, a radio, a flashlight, a baton, a can of Mace, a summons book, and a tape recorder. According to the rangers, the time needed to don and doff the uniforms ranged from approximately five to 30 minutes. Rangers’ claims. The rangers claimed that the employer provided inadequate compensation in four respects: (1) by failing to pay wages for compensable activities that they performed immediately before and after their regularly scheduled shifts, including donning and doffing their uniforms; (2) by failing to pay wages for compensable activities performed during lunch breaks; (3) by providing one hour, rather than one hour and a half, of compensatory leave for each hour of overtime that the rangers worked; and (4) by providing compensatory leave, rather than monetary payment, for overtime that rangers worked after individually accruing 480 hours of compensatory leave. Donning and doffing claims. At the end of discovery, the employer moved for partial summary judgment. The district court concluded as a matter of law that the employees’ donning and doffing of uniforms were not compensable activities under the FLSA because they did not qualify as integral and indispensable to their principal activities. The employees appealed, arguing that the district court erroneously granted partial summary judgment on the compensability of their donning and doffing claims and prematurely closed the case. Integral and indispensable activities. On appeal, the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s decision, finding that on the current record, it could not conclude as a matter of law that the employees’ donning and doffing of uniforms were not integral and indispensable to their principal activities as park rangers. The matter was remanded to allow the district court to decide, in the first instance, whether the employees’ donning and doffing were nevertheless non-compensable as a matter of law under the de minimis doctrine or the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. Principal activities. The FLSA does not require payment for time spent on "activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to" an employee’s principal activities. The parties disputed which standard applied to the employees’ donning and doffing of uniforms: The employees characterized those tasks as integral and indispensable to (and thus part of) their principal activities as park rangers, while the employer described them as preliminary or "postliminary" to all principal activities. The district court concluded that the employer was correct, but the appeals court disagreed. An activity qualifies as "integral" if it is "intrinsically ‘connected with’" a principal activity that an employee was hired to perform. And an activity is "indispensable" if it is "necessary" to the performance of a principal activity. An activity is therefore "integral and indispensable to the principal activities that an employee is employed to perform if it is an intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities." The Second Circuit and other courts have concluded that an employee’s pre- and post-shift preparation of items used to perform principal activities can qualify as integral and indispensable. Courts have also concluded that an employee’s pre- and post-shift efforts to protect against heightened workplace dangers can qualify as integral and indispensable. With those precedents in mind, the appeals court concluded in this instance that a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the employees’ donning and doffing of uniforms were integral and indispensable to their principal activities as park rangers. Uniforms and equipment. Several relevant considerations pointed in that direction. First, the donning and doffing of a park ranger’s uniform were activities "undertaken for the employer’s benefit," with no choice on the employee’s behalf. Further, the Parks Department required the rangers to don and doff their uniforms at the workplace. More fundamentally, the uniforms appeared to be vital to "the primary goal[s] of [the rangers’] work" during a shift. For instance, the utility belt held items used to perform law-enforcement duties. The rangers’ bulletproof vest functioned solely to protect against risks collateral to those activities. Additionally, the uniforms served to identify the employees to others. Without such a visible signal of authority, a ranger’s efforts to instruct the public and enforce park rules could be ineffective. Moreover, supervisors frequently told rangers that their role is to be a highly visible uniformed presence in New York City. That instruction blurred the distinction between wearing the uniform and performing the job. Accordingly, the donning and doffing of a park ranger’s professional clothing, no less than her equipment, could reasonably be viewed as integral and indispensable to her principal activities. Under these circumstances, the Second Circuit could not conclude, as a matter of law, that the park rangers’ donning and doffing of uniforms were not integral and indispensable to their principal activities.
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