Forgot the Comma? That Will Cost You $10 Million.

Here at Farm Commons, we spend a fair amount of time trying to convince our agricultural community that business law isn’t a codebook of secret phrases that, when well-applied to a written agreement, can unlock nirvana or lay a minefield for one’s opposition. We work hard to convince folks that honest communication and authentic agreements are the sources of legal resilience. And then a news story comes along about a misplaced comma that ends up dictating the outcome of ten million dollars in disputed overtime wages. And we look like a bit of the fool. (But, we insist! This story is an outlier!)

Do Maine milk truck drivers need to be paid an overtime rate of time and a half for all hours worked over 40 in the week? Whether or not workers in agricultural enterprises are owed overtime pay is a highly contested area of law. Farm Commons works hard to provide the latest information in our 50-state collection of Selected Essentials in Farm Employment law, and we know firsthand how hard it can be to parse out the way overtime exemptions are phrased in state and federal law. So, it wasn’t too surprising to find ambiguity in Maine’s law. According to the code, folks involved in the “…marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…perishable foods” are not granted overtime pay by law.

The confusion centers around the “packing for shipment or distribution” phrase. Does this law mean that A) folks involved in packing for shipment of perishable foods OR packing for distribution of perishable foods are exempt from overtime protections? Or is it that folks involved in packing for shipment of perishable foods Or involved in the distribution of perishable foods don’t get overtime pay? Because if the answer is A, truck drivers do receive overtime- they are not packers. But if the answer is B, then truck drivers don’t receive overtime- they are distributing perishable food. Clear as mud? If you need even more grammatical complications, check out this New Yorker article on the situation!

As it turns out, the answer in Maine is A. The truck drivers are not packers (for shipment or distribution), and thus, they do receive overtime. Had the law instead stated “…marketing, storing, packing for shipment, or distribution of…perishable foods,” the case might have turned out differently. The final comma serves as a dividing line between the concept of packing and the concept of distribution.

Sometimes, it’s just fun to point out the seemingly arbitrary nature of legal machinations. It offers temporary relief from the constant responsibility to be clear about our intentions and pursue clarifying conversations with our stakeholders. Yet, those necessities are not far behind. Yes, the comma played a role in the outcome. But at the same time, the intentions of the legislators passing the law also play a large role. The principles of legal interpretation require that exemptions be read narrowly. When it comes to exempting certain people from overtime, the court must interpret ambiguities in a way that allows fewer (not more) people to fall into the exemption. The court finding that the milk truck drivers are owed overtime (comma or no) is in keeping with that essential principle.

Farmers sorting through their own issue of overtime interpretation can check out our 50-state Selected Essentials series, and we also highly recommend our Farmers’ Guide to Classifying Workers. This resource illuminates the wide range of factors courts consider when trying to figure out what is agricultural (and thus exempt from overtime and other wage laws) and what is nonagricultural (and thus, overtime applies).