Compliance Matters TM
Court Upholds Federal Rule That Certain Commercial Truck Drivers Are Exempt From California's Meal and Rest Break Requirements 
Employers in California are all too familiar with the strict State rules for meal and rest breaks. In 2018, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ("FMCSA") reversed its longstanding position and determined that the California meal and rest break rules ("MRB") conflict with federal safety standards for commercial truck drivers and, therefore, are preempted by federal trucking law. On January 15, 2021, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals covering California upheld the FMCSA's interpretation that the California MRB rules as applied to commercial truck drivers are preempted by federal law.

Background

In 1984, Congress passed the Motor Carrier Safety Act to promote the safe operation of commercial vehicles. The Department of Transportation ("DOT") was given authority to issue regulations to establish minimum safety standards for commercial truck drivers, and to determine if State safety laws applicable to commercial truck drivers are preempted by federal trucking law. The FMCSA is the federal agency within the DOT responsible for establishing safety standards for commercial truck drivers.

Federal "hours-of-service" regulations apply to commercial truck drivers, and govern work hours and breaks for commercial truck drivers. For example, federal hours-of-service rules mandate that truck drivers can only drive 10 hours in a 14-hour period, and must have at least 10 hours off duty after working 14 hours. In 2011, the FMCSA issued new rules that require truck drivers to take at least one 30-minute break during the first eight hours of work. Drivers have flexibility as to when this break occurs, and the break can be either off duty or in the truck's sleeper berth.

By comparison, the California MRB rules are much more strict. These rules also apply to commercial truck drivers covered by Wage Order 9, and generally require the following:

  • employees that work more than five hours must be provided with a 30-minute duty free meal break that begins before the end of the fifth hour of work (but can be waived if the employee does not work more than six hours)
  • employees that work more than 10 hours must be provided with a second 30-minute duty free meal break that begins before the end of the tenth hour of work (but can be waived if the employee does not work more than 12 hours and took the first meal break)
  • employees must be provided with paid 10-minute rest breaks for every four hours worked or "major fraction" to be taken as close to the middle of each four-hour period as is reasonably practicable.

In 2008, the FMCSA rejected a challenge by the trucking industry to the California MRB rules on preemption grounds. The FMCSA determined that the California MRB rules were not preempted by federal commercial trucking safety rules because the MRB rules applied generally to all industries and did not single out commercial truck drivers.

2018 Preemption Challenge

In 2018, the trucking industry filed a new challenge with the FMCSA arguing again that the California trucking rules were preempted by federal law, pointing to the 2011 amendments that specifically added a 30-minute break requirement to the federal hours-of-service rules. This time the FMCSA agreed, and reversed its 2008 decision. The FMCSA concluded that the California MRB rules should be considered safety rules affecting commercial truck drivers, and are preempted by federal law because the MRB rules are more stringent than the federal safety regulations and result in an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce. Specifically, the MRB rules required more breaks at greater frequency with less flexibility than the federal break requirements.

Ninth Circuit Decision

The FMCSA's 2018 preemption decision was challenged by the Teamsters Union and the California Labor Commissioner in a petition filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel upheld the FMCSA's preemption ruling. The Ninth Circuit applied settled principles of administrative law to conclude that the agency acted within its authority, and that its interpretation of federal law was not arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion. The Ninth Circuit held that the FMCSA's latest interpretation was entitled to deference even though the FMCSA changed its previous position from 2008 because the revision of the hours-of-service-rules in 2011 constituted new circumstances. Thus, the Court held that based on the FMCSA's preemption ruling, the California MRB rules could not be applied to commercial truck drivers.

What's Next?

Because of the importance of this issue, it is likely that the Teamsters Union and/or Labor Commissioner will request that the ruling by the three-judge panel be decided by the full Ninth Circuit en banc. It is also possible that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court will be filed if the Ninth Circuit decision stands. 

It is also important to understand that the Court's decision was based on a review of the FMCSA's preemption ruling. The FMCSA under a Trump administration was willing to reverse its 2008 preemption ruling. It is possible that the FMCSA under a Biden administration will find a basis to reverse course yet again, and conclude the California MRB rules are not preempted by federal law. We expect this is not the last word on the subject.

In addition, the FMCSA hours-of-service rules that were the basis of the preemption ruling do not apply to all truck drivers. Drivers of small delivery trucks or purely local truck drivers may not be covered by the federal hours-of-service rules and, therefore, may still be bound by the California MRB rules. It is also unclear if the California "piece rate" rules that require paid rest breaks be paid at the employee's regular rate of pay rather than the employee's base hourly rate are also preempted, since many truck drivers are paid by the delivery or mile, which is a piece rate.

Please call your Firm contact with any questions on how this latest decision may affect your business at (818) 508-3700, or visit us online at www.brgslaw.com

Sincerely,
Richard S. Rosenberg
Jeffrey P. Fuchsman
Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt, LLP 
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