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Tyson Employees Win in Supreme Court Donning and Doffing Decision

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Washington, DCEmployees who filed an unpaid wages lawsuit against Tyson Foods were given a victory by the US Supreme Court, which recently upheld a lower court’s $5.8 million judgment against Tyson. At issue was time spent donning and doffing protective gear, required for employees who worked on the production line at Tyson Foods.

According to the lawsuit, originally filed in 2006 by workers at Tyson’s Iowa pork processing plant, Tyson didn’t record the time employees spent in what was known as “K-Code” time. Rather, they added a certain amount to each employee’s paycheck per shift to compensate for that time. But plaintiffs claimed the time Tyson added to their checks was not enough to cover all the time they spent putting on and taking off their safety gear, which was vital to their jobs slaughtering pigs and preparing meat for shipment.

At one point, Tyson attempted to remedy the issue, by increasing the amount of time added to employee timesheets. Prior to 2010, the plaintiffs argued, they were only paid for four to seven “K-Code” minutes per shift. After a change in 2010, employees were paid for 20 to 22 “K-Code” minutes per shift.

Employees were awarded $2.9 million in unpaid wages by a lower court. Tyson appealed, arguing that the district court should not have certified the lawsuit as a class action because employees did not share enough common traits. Employees, Tyson argued, did not all have the same donning and doffing time - their time could vary from 30 seconds to 10 minutes - and some had none at all.

Although the Supreme Court agreed to hear Tyson’s arguments, it ultimately found in a six to two decision, that the district court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the lawsuit - involving 3,344 employees - to go ahead as a class action.

“Finally, it bears emphasis that this problem appears to be one of petitioner’s own making,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “Respondents proposed bifurcating between the liability and damages phases of this proceeding for the precise reason that it might be difficult to remove uninjured individuals from the class after an award is rendered. It was petitioner who argued against that option and now seeks to profit from the difficulty it caused.”

The lawsuit is Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo et al, in the Supreme Court of the United States, case number 14-1146.

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