The Oxford Comma Case Proves We Need New Employment Laws, Not Better Grammar

by Evil HR Lady on March 21, 2017

You’ve probably heard about the company in Maine that will end up shelling out around $10 million due to the lack of an Oxford comma. The New York Times explains it as follows:

A class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers hinged entirely on a debate that has bitterly divided friends, families and foes: The dreaded — or totally necessary — Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks.

What ensued in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and in a 29-page court decision handed down on Monday, was an exercise in high-stakes grammar pedantry that could cost a dairy company in Portland, Me., an estimated $10 million.

Everyone is focusing on the Oxford comma part of this case, but I’d like to focus on the ridiculousness of an employment law that could result in this confusion and hinge on a grammar question.

My first question on this was how on earth do truck drivers qualify for being exempt on a federal law level? The Fair Labor Standards Act has strict rules for who can and who cannot be salaried exempt (that is, not eligible for overtime), and at first glance truck drivers don’t seem to meet those criteria, but it turns out that labor law exempts employees who fall under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Transportation through the Motor Carrier Act of 1935. That’s why Maine could make their own rules.7

To keep reading, click here: The Oxford Comma Case Proves We Need New Employment Laws, Not Better Grammar

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Parker Davis March 21, 2017 at 1:15 pm

May be different in Switzerland, but here in the USA laws are interpreted on exactly how the language is written. You continue to contradict yourself in this article. We do need better labor laws, but better would be written in language that is clear and unambiguous. That is indeed better use of grammar.
With regard to drivers you show another lack of understanding. Many route sales drivers are paid exclusively on their sales performance, not how many hours they work.

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J.B. March 21, 2017 at 3:16 pm

Legislative law and administrative law are very different things. Despite the apparent desire to do away with administrative law, legislators don’t ever seem to consider pesky things like how you track, what definitions are needed, etc, etc.

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Amanda March 21, 2017 at 5:19 pm

Up until recently, it has been quite common to pay route sales drivers commission based on sales; however, the trend is fading, with more employers moving towards an hourly-based pay. This is for many reasons, two being to control costs and to improve recruitment and retention (considering that there are often routes that are more rural in nature, requiring drivers to drive twice as much for the same or less in sales as a driver in a more populated area).

Labor laws do need to be written in a more clear and unambiguous way. It should be impossible for employers or employees alike to exploit ambiguities or poor choice of words and/or grammar for their own benefit.

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Marty March 21, 2017 at 10:12 pm

I fail to see the ambiguity problem here: yes, the law was ambiguous, but, now, the courts have issued a ruling, and the law is no longer ambiguous. Problem solved, the courts have done exactly what they should: created a president that removes all ambiguity from this specific law.

One of the really nice things about common law is that legislatures can trust the courts to figure out the details. This tends to make legislation easier, and the law more predictable in the medium to long term. Everybody profits.

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Evil HR Lady March 22, 2017 at 9:24 am

Marty, I strongly disagree. When you have ambiguous laws (which employment law is filled with), it puts businesses at risk. People who are good, honest people, who try their hardest to comply cannot do so with confidence.

When we’re talking about federal law, how it plays out often differs depending which circuit you are in. How is that a great idea?

It’s horrible. Employment (and all law) law should be cleary written an unambiguous. Period.

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M Kim Anderson March 27, 2017 at 11:59 pm

No matter how well you write laws, grammatical rules apply. As with everything, there are two competing interests – brevity and clarity. The ongoing need to clarify legislation makes statutes like tax codes longer each year, following which we complain that they are too long. Then they redraft and then get called to task for not nailing down the details.

Presuming (and I am only teasing here) that you meant to say that law should be clearLy written anD unambiguous.

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grannybunny March 21, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Yes, let’s just do away with all the laws in America protecting workers and go back to the free market system. Then we’ll understand exactly why those laws were enacted in the first place. And Cato being pro-employee? Give us all a break. Yes, punctuation, grammar, and anything else that influences a court trying to construe a statute or contract, are all important.

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Paula March 21, 2017 at 2:40 pm

I had a good laugh with this one when I saw that Walter Olson was trying to pass himself off as “pro-employee.” That’s a good one. There are plenty of pro-employee sources you could cite in the article, but Walter Olson and Jon Hyman are both about as pro-employer as you can get.

If you look at the FLSA’s history, you’ll learn that most of the exemptions are for professions that in the 1930s were almost exclusively non-white and/or female: transportation, agriculture, home health care….these were all jobs performed by people who were not white males. So, yes, it needs overhauling so that more workers are included, and the raising of the minimum threshold proposed by the Obama Administration goes into effect.

But a complete evisceration of workplace protections under the guise that workers have the ability to make fair contracts and compete on the free market? Absolutely not — that would definitely be putting the “evil” in HR (although I suppose you might not have any need for HR at all if there were no laws left to protect workers — companies wouldn’t even need to give lipservice to that idea.)

And Contracts 101 assumes that the parties to a contract have equivalent bargaining power. Maybe a handful of C-suite employees have sufficient power to bargain with their employers, but most other folks, they need a job! The employer holds all or most of the cards in the labor markets we have now, so let’s not destroy any and all protections for workers (more than we essentially have already with the election of Trump.)

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Maria Rose March 21, 2017 at 9:40 pm

Yes there needs to be some revisions made to that 1938 law to include more jobs that have developed over the last almost 80 years using a full time 40 hours at minimum wage as base pay and adjust depending on specific job. We can’t eliminate these regulations as they do protect employees as to getting paid. We don’t need to go back to the will of the company abuse as that will result in lack of pay

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Semi-Evil Tech Manager March 23, 2017 at 3:36 pm

That’s all noble but your premise is flawed. Where is it stated that any person is ENTITLED to be hired for work? Where is it stated that employers MUST hire anyone? Start there.

The next step is the employment agreement or contract. I have faith that practically all able-minded people have the capacity to understand what their job is and what they will receive in compensation. As was suggested, laws must be in place to PROTECT that contract. Employer doesn’t pay the employee per the contract, that employer is punished. If a prospective employee decides to work for something less that what you perceive is a “fair/living wage” then they should have the right to do so. How do you know what their situation is? It’s the presumption that government needs to intervene in all situations creates the mess we’re in. If you have to deal with employment issues (like I have), you’ll understand how much nonsense and waste results.

The only thing complex employment law does is make lawyers rich and drive up costs for compliance. You know, because people becoming rich is very very evil and should be punished because equality.

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