U.S.

Missing comma enables dairy delivery drivers to claim overtime pay

Missing comma enables dairy delivery drivers to claim overtime pay

John Smith drove his truck home to see his wife, a doctor and his best friend. Both problems would be resolved by minimizing the legalese and saying something more straightforward or breaking the sentence in two. The Oxford comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

Supporters claim it is needed for clarification.

"The District Court concluded that, despite the absent comma, the ME legislature unambiguously intended for the last term in the exemption's list of activities to identify an exempt activity in its own right".

That makes this case insane, amazing, and downright weird as hell.

In Maine, the much-disputed Oxford comma has helped a group of dairy drivers in a dispute with a company about overtime pay. Classic driver wage suit.

Jennifer Oldvader, an attorney with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart PC in Kansas City, Mo., representing Oakhurst Dairy in the case, declined to comment when contacted by Mainebiz.

"For want of a comma, we have this case", read circuit judge David J. Barron's decision. But Oakhurst Dairy probably wishes Maine's labor laws included them.

Had there been a comma between "shipment" and "or distribution" these activities would have simply been a continuation of the list, each a separate activity exempt from overtime. Distribution is not covered in the list of overtime exemptions.


Essentially, the district ruled that drivers fell within the state's exemptions for overtime.

It did not, and since the judge observed that labor laws, when ambiguous, are created to benefit the laborers, the case was settled.

But when that's all said and done, a timeless lesson will remain: Language without proper punctuation is like a highway with improperly placed road signs. However, without it, "packing for shipment or distribution" count as one activity: packing. According to court documents, the drivers distribute perishable food, but they don't pack it.

The law provides that employees can not be required to work for more than 40 hours a week without receiving overtime pay.

Oakhurst claimed, and a lower court agreed, that "distribution" means the company's drivers and thus exempts Oakhurst from having to pay them overtime.

Now, as adherents of the great and bad AP Stylebook - which also eschews the Oxford comma - we must admit the moral of this story flies in the face of everything (or one thing) NPR's own sentences stand for.

A federal court made a decision based on its interpretation of grammar rules, and the most controversial grammatical debate was front and center.

That would be the same state law that's apparently missing a serial comma.


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