Legislation & Lobbying

Dairy company settles overtime suit that hinged on lack of Oxford comma

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A dairy company in Maine has agreed to pay $5 million to its drivers after a federal appeals court last year found ambiguity in a state overtime law because it lacked an Oxford comma.

The settlement between the Oakhurst Dairy and its drivers still needs court approval, report the Portland Press Herald and the New York Times. According to the Times, the deal ended a case “that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs.”

The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last March that the uncertain meaning of an exception in the overtime law made it unclear whether it applied to workers involved in the distribution of food. As a result, the law should be interpreted in favor of the drivers, the appeals court had said.

The statute had provided that workers were not entitled to overtime if their jobs involved “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) agricultural produce; (2) meat and fish products; and (3) perishable foods.”

At issue was whether “packing for shipment or distribution” was one activity involving packing, which meant drivers were entitled to overtime pay because they didn’t pack food, or two separate activities, which meant distribution workers would not be entitled to overtime. If there had been a comma after “shipment,” then it would have been clear that distribution was a separate activity and the drivers would not be entitled to overtime, a lawyer for the drivers conceded to the New York Times last year.

The statute has since been revised, with semicolons inserted. It provides an overtime exception for workers involved in “the canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of: (1) agricultural produce; (2) meat and fish products; and (3) perishable foods.

The sponsor of the revised provision says it was intended to make clear that the distribution of certain foods is exempt from the law governing overtime pay.

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