FLSA Class Action Alleging Failure to Compensate Workers for Time Spent Donning, Doffing and Cleaning Safety and Sanitary Gear Involved Putative Class Action Representatives “Similarly Situated” to Members of Proposed Class Warranting Certification of FLSA Collective Action for Purposes of Notice Despite Differences in Employee Equipment Utilized, Time Incurred and Timekeeping Methods Arkansas Federal Court Holds
Various class action lawsuits were filed against Pilgrim’s Pride for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) alleging failure to compensate employees for time spent donning and doffing safety and sanitary gear at chicken processing plants; the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralized the class actions in the Western District of Arkansas, and plaintiffs filed a consolidated motion for class action certification (technically, a “collective action” under the FLSA). In re Pilgrim’s Pride Fair Labor Standards Act Litig., ___ F.Supp.2d ___ (W.D. Ark. March 13, 2008) [Slip Opn., at 1 and n.1]. The class action covered workers at 21 plants located in 10 states, and covered “tasks on the chicken processing line, such as slaughtering, cutting, deboning, cleaning, and packaging.” Id., at 1-2. The federal court explained at page 2, “Pilgrim’s provides to its employees a variety of required safety and sanitary gear, generally worn over the street clothes. However, the exact combination of protective and sanitary items worn by the employees varies by facility, department, production line, position, and individual.” Moreover, “Pilgrim’s implements various timekeeping systems for its employees who work on the chicken processing line, so that the method for timekeeping varies from facility to facility.” Id., at 2. The defense opposed class action treatment on the grounds that “significant differences exist between the facilities and workers,” id., at 7; the district court found that objection to be premature and conditionally certified the class action for notice purposes.
The district court utilized the two-stage approach to class action treatment of FLSA claims under which the court first considers the “notice stage” and then, after discovery is largely complete, the “opt-in or merits stage.” In re Pilgrim’s Pride, at 4-5. At the notice stage, the federal court considers only “whether notice should be given to potential class members,” id., at 5. The question at this stage is whether the putative class action representatives are “similarly situated” to the members of the proposed class, id., at 6. The court noted that more than 3000 declarations from employees at 20 plants had filed opt-in notices with the court, id.; the court considered, also, 37 declarations from workers at 18 plants describing the company’s “common practice” with respect to the donning, doffing and cleaning of safety and sanitary gear, id., at 6-7. In response, the defense argued that “there are differences in the safety and sanitary clothing worn by employees even within the same departments and variations in the amounts of time it takes different employees to don and doff the protective gear,” id., at 7, and argued also that timekeeping methods differed, particularly as to union employees whose collective bargaining agreement specifically “excludes time spent changing clothes and washing from the compensable workday,” id. and n.3. The court found these arguments “premature at this initial certification stage,” id., at 7. Accordingly, it granted plaintiffs’ consolidated motion for certification of a collective action for purposes of notice to the proposed class, id., at 8.