LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A sharply divided Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday said a baby food manufacturer must pay more than $3 million to workers for the time they spent dressing and undressing into uniforms and protective gear.
In a 4-3 ruling, the high court upheld a lower court's ruling that Gerber Products Co. should have compensated more than 800 workers at its Fort Smith facility for the time they spent changing into uniforms, donning protective gear such as ear plugs and washing their hands, as well as undressing after their shifts ended. Justices sided with the workers who said Arkansas' Minimum Wage Act required the company to compensate for the activities despite an agreement with the union.
"We hold that the donning and doffing activities constitute compensable work under the AMWA, despite the custom and practice under the collective-bargaining agreement," Justice Karen Baker wrote in the majority opinion.
The ruling drew sharp objections from three justices, who said in a dissenting opinion that because of the decision "the floodgates will open to litigation at the enormous cost to businesses in Arkansas."
"In addition, the majority undermines the collective-bargaining process and destroys any confidence employers and employees have in the enforceability of their agreements," Justice Rhonda Wood wrote.
Gerber had argued the workers' union had agreed to not be paid for the time in a contract that also included larger wage increases for the employees. An attorney for Gerber did not immediately return a call Thursday, and a spokeswoman for the company did not respond to an email.
John Holleman, an attorney for the workers, called the decision "landmark" and said it will benefit other workers around the state who aren't being for similar activities that are required as part of their job.
"This is a situation where clearly we had both the law and basic principles of fairness and justice on our side," Holleman said. "These people are clearly working at this time and they deserve to be paid."
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