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Sunday, 09 March 2014 10:06

Jury: Sara Lee must pay workers for time to don, doff work gear at Zeeland plant

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Robert Alvarez Robert Alvarez

A jury last week found that workers at a former Sara Lee Corp. plant in Zeeland are owed wages for time they spent putting on and taking off protective work clothes during each shift.

The verdict in the class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids could have implications for other employers and similar cases filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.

“Once we’ve had one jury verdict on the issue, it sets the tone for all future cases, and that’s what we were hoping for,” said Robert Alvarez, an attorney with Avanti Law Group PLLC who represented the 29 plaintiffs alongside attorneys from Sommers Schwartz PC of Southfield. “There are many companies out there that continue to have workers don and doff protective gear and are not properly compensating them for that time.”

The 500-person plant, which now operates under the Hillshire Brands name and has 23 different departments, requires production employees to wear personal protective equipment, including safety glasses, hearing protection and steel-toed shoes, according to the complaint. Other workers were required to wear frocks, plastic aprons, sleeve guards and gloves, face shields and vinyl overcoats.

But to take on and remove that required gear, the employees had to arrive early and leave after their shifted ended — without any compensation for the added time, Alvarez said.

After a four-day trial, the jury sided with the plaintiffs. Their verdict recognized that the 10 to 15 minutes a day it took for employees to don and doff the protective equipment was an important and a necessary requirement of the job and that they should be compensated for that time, Alvarez said.

“Every minute and every penny counts for these hourly workers, especially in the current economy,” he said. “Over time, those 10 to 15 minutes of pay can make a big difference.”

Other employers in this sector should evaluate current pay practices and ensure they are fairly compensating their workers, Alvarez added.

A status conference is scheduled for later this month after which a trial will be held to determine back pay and damages for the plaintiffs.

The amount of back pay and damages they’re asking for is unknown at this time, and Alvarez wouldn’t speculate how much his clients might seek.

In April 2013, Sara Lee reached a $1.4 million settlement with 231 production workers for a similar don and doff case filed by workers in North Carolina, according to previous reports.

The Sara Lee case isn’t the only litigation in West Michigan over donning and doffing practices. In a case before the U.S. District Court in Kalamazoo, employees at the JBS Packerland meatpacking plant in Plainwell are seeking unpaid wages related to the donning and doffing protective gear.

Matthew Turner, an attorney from Sommers Schwartz who worked on the Sara Lee case, secured a judgment on behalf of seven JBS Packerland workers in July 2013.

In the majority of these kinds of cases, the defendants often settle out of court, Alvarez said, noting that a jury verdict is a rarity.

“Hopefully (the Sara Lee case) helps initiate some change in the industry and helps with any future cases we choose to file,” Alvarez said.

Sara Lee was represented by attorneys at Chicago-based Mayer Brown LLP and Varnum Riddering Schmidt & Howlett LLP of Grand Rapids.

Read 3954 times Last modified on Sunday, 09 March 2014 10:15

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