truck driver getting in cab Photo: Welcomia

Court rules drivers deserve minimum wage

The recent federal court ruling says drivers paid by the mile may still be paid that way but their overall pay must meet the federal minimum wage requirements.

An Arkansas U.S. District Court ruled that truck drivers should receive at least minimum wage for their work time — whether they are paid by the hour or the mile. The recent ruling notes that drivers who are paid by the mile may still be paid in that fashion, but their overall pay must meet the federal requirements for minimum wage.

"The law that we're suing under says: We're going to look at all the money you [carriers] have paid a driver in a given week. And that could be mileage pay. It could be detention pay. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter how you did it. We're going to look at the total paycheck that your driver earned and divide it by the total hours he worked," notes attorney Justin Swidler, who represents the drivers in this case. "The trucking companies may say, 'Well, that only includes drive time and time the driver logged on-duty, and no other time.' And we take the decision [to mean] that you have to include all the time the driver gives with work time under federal labor laws, and that includes some of the time the driver spends in the sleeper berth."

The ruling in the case, Browne v. P.A.M. Transport, Inc., was made in October.

He adds: "The significance of the ruling is that the court has recognized a principle — and it's not the first court to do so — but it's recognized a principle that I think every driver intuitively knows, which is that when you're stuck guarding a truck, the tractor or the load, that's still work, even if you're in the sleeper berth, even if you're sleeping [that's work time] because a lot of that time you wouldn't be there if you weren't at work. There's the conceptual recognition that this is work."

For drivers making $700 or $800 a week, there is probably no effect from this ruling. However, for drivers making $200 to $300 a week, it probably means they’re making less than minimum wage and their wages should be raised to at least the minimum federal wage, according to Swidler. "If you're making 20 or 25 cents a mile, then this decision might mean that you should get paid more," he says. "I'd have to look at how many miles you get and how many hours you're really working. I'm speaking generally. But if you're on the lower end of the pay spectrum, this decision may support the idea that you're getting paid less than the federal law requires and that you're entitled to additional money for your time."

Several attorneys listed as representing the plaintiff did not return Fleet Owner requests for comment. However, quoted in Transport Topics, a publication of American Trucking Assns., Richard Pianka, deputy general counsel, called the ruling an "outlier" that is causing concern and uncertainty in the trucking industry. “But in the fullness of time," he added, "the issue will come out the right way. In the meantime, it muddies the water.”

Swidler says: "I don't think the decision is as game-changing as the ATA claims it to be. And we don't pretend otherwise. What the court held here is, in essence, that when you're over the road as a driver, assuming that you're not relieved from duty and you're not going into a hotel or able to leave the truck and the load, that that's basically 16 hours a day of work per the federal regulations. That would entitle you to minimum wage for 16 hours a day."

Although the ruling affects drivers making under minimum wage, it might trickle up to higher paid drivers, says Swidler. "The hope is that, as you raise the bottom, you raise everybody. That's the practical implications of what this could mean. It also means that if we can get Congress to increase minimum wage, then these drivers would get a little bit more, too."

The next proceeding before the court, in this case, is that the defendants have filed a decertification motion asking the court to tell the 3,000 class action drivers that they have to file separate lawsuits. Swidler disagrees with this claim and says that the drivers are within their rights to be considered a class for purposes of this suit.

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