Ahh, for want of a comma. California employers probably don’t spend much of their workdays worrying about the impact that a comma, or the lack thereof, will have on their business. But a recent court decision involving unpaid overtime for truck drivers serves as a jarring reminder of just how important, and costly, a comma can be.
Oakhurst Dairy, based in Maine, will owe its delivery drivers millions of dollars in unpaid overtime wages because the company misread a state law exempting certain employees from overtime pay. The law at the heart of the case, Exemption F to Maine’s overtime rules, states that overtime laws do not apply to those employees engaged in:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
- Agricultural produce;
- Meat and fish products; and
- Perishable foods.”
The drivers’ suit was based on that comma missing between the words “shipment” and “or.” They sued Oakhurst for unpaid overtime, claiming they spent almost 12 hours per week making dairy deliveries that should have been paid at an overtime rate.
Oakhurst believed that during the hours in question, the drivers were making dairy deliveries, those deliveries were perishable, and thus the drivers were engaged in the “distribution of…(3) perishable foods” during the time they claimed they were owed overtime.
Arguing under the same exact law, the drivers interpreted Exemption F as exempting those employees who engaged in “packing for shipment or (packing for) distribution of… (3) perishable foods.” Because the drivers did not pack (for shipment or for distribution) any of the perishable dairy products they delivered, then they were not exempt from overtime wages under Exemption F.
After winding its way through several courts since the case was initially filed in 2014, the US District Court of Appeals for the First Circuit issued their decision in favor of the drivers’ interpretation of the overtime law. The Court said simply:
“For want of a comma, we have this case…Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law’s protection.”
In other words, if there had been a comma after “shipment,” it might have been clear that the law exempted employees who distribute perishable foods from Maine’s overtime laws. But the Court sided with the drivers, saying that the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty as to what Exemption F meant that the Court decided to rule in their favor.
As a result of the First Circuit win, approximately 75 delivery drivers are now entitled to unpaid overtime for hours worked over a span of almost 4 years. The total unpaid overtime Oakhurst will have to pay drivers is approximately $10 million.
Keep the Workplace Working
Documents like contracts, employee handbooks, policies, and written agreements are critical to the daily operation of a business. These documents can also become vitally important should litigation arise. But written materials are only as effective as they are precise. Word choice, punctuation, and the implied meaning of words can significantly impact the effectiveness of certain documents. As the Oakhurst case shows, costly disputes can arise when two parties have two different interpretations of the same written word.
Document review is critical. Be sure to take extra care to understand, and review, the written materials that your business depends on, and consult legal counsel whenever necessary. Failing to do so could be costly, and no one wants to pay $10 million because of a missing comma.