Restricted government shutdown has little influence on FMCSA, FHWA operations

In a significant decision that rebukes a major 2014 ruling by a federal court, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has said that carriers do not have to comply with California laws requiring employers to provide workers with regular meal breaks and paid rest breaks.

The agency announced Friday, Dec. 21, that it will grant a petition filed in September by the American Trucking Associations asking that the agency exempt carriers from the California-specific break laws, arguing they interfere with federal hours of service regulations. FMCSA said Friday it agrees, stating that the 1996 Federal Aviation Authorization Administration Act (F4A) dictates that federal law supersedes state laws on regulating drivers’ work schedules.

ATA had fought the 2014 court decision, coming from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Dilts v. Penske, in Congress for years. Via the so-called Denham Amendment (named for Rep. Jeff Denham of California), ATA pressed Congress to intervene and re-establish the federal government’s authority in regulating drivers’ schedules. Those years-long efforts were unsuccessful, and, in September, ATA turned its attention to the U.S. DOT on the matter.

Allied with ATA on seeking to overturn the decision was the Western States Trucking Association, who argued that the ruling created a wave of litigation against trucking companies, particularly smaller carriers, seeking payouts to drivers for not allowing them to take the California-required meal and rest breaks.

California labor laws require that employers provide a 30-minute meal break every five hours at work and a paid 15-minute rest break for every four hours of work time.

“Safety is FMCSA’s top priority and having uniform rules is a key component to increasing safety for our truck drivers,” said FMCSA Administrator Ray. Martinez.  “During the public comment period, FMCSA heard directly from drivers, small business owners, and industry stakeholders that California’s meal and rest rules not only pose a safety risk, but also lead to a loss in productivity and ultimately hurt American consumers.”

Though the decision only applies to the meal and rest break laws, it could impact other trucking cases ongoing in California. Specifically, the DOT’s move could play a role in a decision in the WSTA’s case against another ruling, Dynamex v. Superior Court, that set new criteria for how to determine a driver’s status as an independent contractor or an employee. WSTA argues the Dynamex decision, made by the California Supreme Court in April, could hamper the use of owner-operator truckers in the state and has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the decision.

WSTA’s Joe Rajkovacz, a former owner-operator and the group’s director or government affairs, said the decision by DOT could help their case in reversing the California Supreme Court’s Dynamex decision.

FMCSA’s ruling on California’s break laws could also add pressure for appeals to the Supreme Court to review the 9th Circuit’s decision in the Dilts v. Penske case.

Both ATA and the Truckload Carriers Association on Friday applauded the DOT’s decision.

“This is a victory for highway safety, not trial lawyers,” said ATA President and CEO Chris Spear. “We hope today’s ruling will once and for all underscore the importance of a single, national standard for work and safety rules for [truck] drivers.”

In a statement, TCA said FMCSA’s decision “is an important step toward creating a more reliable and consistent regulatory environment for truck drivers.”

“A consistent set of rules directly benefits drivers, consumers, small businesses and the American economy,” the group said.