A federal appeals court ruling in a case coming out of Maine involving overtime pay and dairy delivery drivers didn’t come down to trucks, milk, or money. Instead, it revolved around one of the biggest debates in the “grammar nerd” world – the “Oxford comma.” Do you remember the Oxford comma from your grammar school days? It is used before the words “and” or “or” in a list of three or more things. Also known as the serial comma, its advocates say it clarifies sentences in which things are listed. Although not all writers or publishers use it, it can make the meaning of a sentence clearer. Nonetheless, the debate over its use is usually pretty inconsequential. So how did it play center stage in a recent class action lawsuit by dairy truck drivers in Maine?
Maine’s wage payment laws say employees engaged in the following activities are not eligible to receive overtime pay: “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.” The drivers argued that the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution” meant the legislation applied only to the single activity of “packing,” rather than to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities. And because the drivers distribute the goods, but do not pack them, they argued they were therefore eligible for several years of unpaid overtime pay.
On March 13, 2017, the First Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, finding the language to be grammatically ambiguous. Because of that lack of clarity, the drivers won their appeal and were held to be eligible for overtime pay. The court observed that labor laws, when ambiguous, are designed to benefit the laborers. “For want of a comma, we have this case,” the court wrote. David Webbert, the lawyer who represents the drivers, declined to take a personal position on the use of the Oxford comma. But he did state, “if there is any doubt, tear up what you wrote and start over.”