We’re not kidding when we say state overtime rules are complex.

In a recent court case involving a dairy company, a comma, of all things, was the primary culprit behind an U.S. court of appeals ruling. Now you’re probably thinking, “What does overtime pay and dairy delivery have to do with punctuation?”

The comma in the dell

Oakhurst Dairy, a Maine dairy farm, was hit with an opinion saying the State of Maine’s overtime laws are essentially up for interpretation, due to the language and grammar used in the documents. The appeal was filed and won by five drivers who have long been in disagreement with Oakhurst Dairy about who is and who isn’t eligible for overtime.

Were these five drivers in fact English majors before joining the delivery team at Oakhurst Dairy? That information has yet to be disclosed. What we do know, however, is that they have taken the term “grammar police” to a whole new level.

One comma short of no overtime

Grammar Nerd-Out Alert: If you’ve been a longtime supporter of the Oxford comma, get ready to clap. And if you’re part of the camp that believes the Oxford comma serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever, then you might want to take some notes.

The following is an excerpt from Maine’s state law that details which work activities are exempt from 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.

Key Point: Notice there’s no comma after “packing for shipment”. Believe it or not, this subtle grammar choice had some not so subtle consequences. Without the Oxford comma, it’s understandable for someone to interpret “packing for shipment or distribution” as one activity (packing) that is exempt from the overtime rule, but NOT to interpret “distribution” as a separate activity.

This may seem like a minor distinction, but that small point (or lack thereof) dramatically changes what activities are and aren’t covered by the state’s overtime laws, taking the above list down from 9 activities that are exempt from overtime to just 8.

To make things even nerdier, the drivers (i.e. distributors) also pointed out that every other exempted activity in the list was a gerund (a word ending in “-ing”), which might further suggest that “distribution” is not meant to be a separate activity.

Taking all this into account, the court ultimately sided with the drivers and determined that the punctuation and phrasing left the sentence’s meaning up for debate, doing more to confuse employees than to provide clarity.

The takeaway

The court noted that overtime laws are meant to benefit employees. That’s why, when conflicts exist between state and federal OT laws, the rules that provide the most protection for workers are the ones that takes effect. If overtime laws (or overtime policies) are ambiguous, expect courts to lean towards employees’ rights.

Unfortunately for the drivers, the appeals court only established that drivers were eligible for overtime by law (so these five still have to go back to a lower court and argue that there weren’t enough commas in their paychecks–hardy-har har).

In any case, comma or no comma, complying with overtime laws can be tricky. The good news is, you don’t have to do it alone. With ExakTime’s time clock app for employees, you can make sure you’re staying compliant from a record perspective. We’ll leave interpreting OT laws to the lawyers, though!