March 21, 2017
By Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel
Boston, MA – A comma missing from a Maine state law about overtime tipped a federal appeals-court decision that will give 75 truck drivers up to $10 million in back pay. On Mar. 13, the First Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower-court ruling and held that drivers at the Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine, were eligible for overtime pay.
The case turned on the “serial comma,” the comma that is sometimes inserted before the “and” in a list of items, and sometimes isn’t. In this case, Maine law said workers don’t have to be paid time-and-a-half for overtime if they’re employed in the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” perishable foods. The drivers’ lawyers argued that meant the exemption applied to workers involved in “packing for shipment or distribution”; if the state had wanted to exempt drivers as well as packers, the law would have read “storing, packing for shipment, or distribution.” “That comma would have sunk our ship,” attorney David G. Webber told the New York Times Mar. 16. The drivers worked an average of 12 extra hours a week, he added, and were seeking more than four years’ worth of back pay. Read more