A federal district court recently issued a ruling that will help ensure that long haul truck drivers and assistant drivers are more fairly paid.

Truck drivers and driver helpers that are on duty for 24 hours or more are typically not paid for any sleeping time (also known as berth time) and meal periods by their employers. However, a recent ruling in a case styled Browne, et al. v. P.A.M. Transport, Inc. confirms what many lawyers who represent employee truck drivers believed for a long time – that federal laws and U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) regulations for minimum wage pay allow employers to deduct only a maximum of 8 hours per day for pay purposes for sleep time and meals, assuming there is an agreement with the employee to deduct that time. If there is no agreement or understanding, then the driver or driver helper must be paid for all sleep time and meal periods.

Many employers, including the one in the Browne case, claim that they did not have to pay truck drivers or helpers for sleep or meal time. Many employers claimed that since U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”) regulations prohibit commercial truck drivers from being “on duty” for more than 14 hours in any 24 hour period, that they only had to pay truck drivers for up to 14 hours in a day. In other words, employers used the DOT “on duty” phrase as a shield from paying truck drivers for sleep or meal periods.

While the DOL wage payment regulations and DOT regulations for safer operations both use the phrase “on duty” in proscribing their respective rules, that phrase has a different meaning when used for minimum wage law under the FLSA than it does for the DOT regulations. As the federal court in Browne stated, the DOT regulations have no bearing on the DOL regulations because “[t]he DOT regulations aim to make our roads safe, while the DOL regulations aim to provide workers with adequate compensation.” The court further noted: “[d]ifferent laws frequently assign different technical meanings to identical words or phrases.”

So, if a long haul truck driver or assistant driver are on a trip lasting 24 hours or longer, which is common, the DOT regulations for making roads safer limit them to being “on duty” for no more than 14 hours per day. However, when it comes to what those drivers or assistant drivers must be paid, the DOL requires time that may be “off duty” for DOT purposes to be “on duty” time for FLSA minimum wage payments. The DOL wage protection regulations state as follows:

Where an employee is required to be on duty for 24 hours or more, the employer and the employee may agree to exclude bona fide meal periods and a bona fide regularly scheduled sleeping period of not more than 8 hours from hours worked, provided adequate sleeping facilities are furnished by the employer and the employee can usually enjoy an uninterrupted night’s sleep. If sleeping period is of more than 8 hours, only 8 hours will be credited. Where no expressed or implied agreement to the contrary is present, the 8 hours of sleeping time and lunch periods constitute hours worked. 29 C.F.R. § 785.22

Further supporting the rights of truck drivers and driver assistants, the DOL regulations specifically state:

Any work that an employee is required to perform while traveling must, of course, be counted as hours worked. An employee who drives a truck, bus, automobile, boat or airplane, or an employee who is required to ride therein as an assistant or helper, is working while riding, except during bona fide meal periods or when he is permitted to sleep in adequate facilities furnished by the employer. 29 C.F.R. § 785.41

The following examples put those DOL regulations into context.

Assume a long haul driver using a truck with a sleeping berth is on a trip that lasts four days. That driver follows DOT regulations, and operates the truck for a maximum of 14 hours in each 24-hour work period. The driver uses the remaining 10 hours each day (24 hours – 14 DOT hours) for sleep in the truck berth and meals. If the employer has an agreement with the driver to exclude eight hours for meal and sleep time for pay purposes per 24-hour period, that means that the driver must be paid 2 additional hours per day (10 hours DOT time – 8 hours maximum DOL time) even though those two additional hours are spent sleeping or eating. Assuming the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour, that results in unpaid minimum wages for that four day period in the amount of $58 (2 hours per 24 hour period * $7.25 per hour * 4 days). Under the FLSA, an employer is generally required to pay the employee liquidated damages in an amount equal to unpaid wages as a penalty, which results in the total money owed for that four day example being $116 ($58 unpaid minimum wages + $58 liquidated damages = $116).

However, if the employer has no agreement or understanding with the employee on how that sleep and meal time must be treated under the DOL wage laws, then the entire 8-hour period must be paid. Assuming a minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour, that is $232 in unpaid wages for the four day trip example above (10 hours * $7.25 per hour * 4 days = $290). After applying the FLSA’s liquidated damages provision, the total money owed to the employee for that four day example is $580 ($290 unpaid minimum wage + $290 liquidated damages = $580).

For drivers operating in states that have higher minimum wage laws than the federal FLSA, their unpaid wages can be even more significant. Regardless of whether state or federal minimum wage rates apply, the unpaid wages over a long period of time can be very significant. In the driver works 52 weeks under the same facts in the first example where $116 per week is owed, that equals $6,032. In the second example, 52 weeks worked would result in $30,160 being owed.

Every case is different, and it is good to get advice from a lawyer experienced in wage and hour law to see if you are possibly owed back wages, and if so, how much.

The employment law attorneys at Baron & Budd have represented thousands of employees throughout the United States. The attorneys at Baron & Budd are known and respected for their results and experience in the field of employment law. If you think that your employer might not be paying you all wages you are owed, including tips, overtime wages, or minimum wages, please contact us at 866-238-4143 or complete our contact form for a free and confidential case evaluation. There is no out of pocket cost to you for a consultation to learn more about your state or federal employment protections.