Written by Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Association. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Legislation working its way through Congress includes a much-needed clarification that blocks states from enforcing their own unique meal and rest break rules on interstate truck drivers who are employees.
Language in the House version of the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development appropriations bill simply restates what used to be a legal standard until altered by a California court in 2014. It blocks states from enacting and enforcing their own work rules for interstate truck drivers, leaving such regulation to the secretary of Transportation.
Simply, a state such as California would be prohibited from enforcing its own unique meal and rest break requirements on drivers operating under federal hours-of-service, or HOS, regulations. This fix does not affect purely intrastate drivers in states, which have authority to set independent HOS regulations, enforce meal and rest break requirements, mandate or exempt drivers from overtime laws, etc.
Why the often-maligned trucking industry needs Congress to once again state the obvious — as it originally did in the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (when Democrats controlled Congress) — is the result of a poorly reasoned decision originating in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit with the assistance of a legal brief filed by a highly politicized Transportation Department. The federal legal brief broke from previous administrations on the issue of federal preemption. The Transportation Department was more intent on placating the wishes of trial attorneys and organized labor than maintaining absolute federal authority over the HOS of interstate drivers.
The failure of the agency to support federal primacy over state laws has subsequently cost our members as well as other motor carriers untold millions of dollars from opportunist lawsuits. Many of those motor carriers are actually small businesses — not mega national carriers that opponents prefer to demonize as they purposely mischaracterize who is being harmed by their political charade.
Those supporting the idea that any state should be able to mandate additional requirements on interstate trucking operations are hiding behind a campaign of misinformation. They desire to change the legal definition of interstate commerce in order to water down federal authority over truck drivers.
No one is arguing about a state’s authority to enforce meal and rest break requirements on a driver that, for example, runs only between Bakersfield and Oakland hauling goods manufactured within the state. That is a purely intrastate movement.
But then things get complicated. Let’s say a shipment of imported electronics arrives at the Port of Los Angeles and is shipped to Denver. Cautious carriers with California employees behind the wheel are making their drivers follow California rules mandating times for meals and rest breaks as long as that truck is traveling in the state. This adds expense and complexity to the national shipment of goods. Clearly this is interstate commerce and only federal rules should apply for the entirety of the trip.
A third scenario is one in which a container of electronics arrives through a port or railyard and is picked up by a local driver to be delivered somewhere within a state. While the driver’s trip takes place entirely within a state, the shipment is still a matter of interstate commerce and the driver is required to adhere to federal hours-of-service regulations. But now — because of the court case — the driver also is required to comply with California rules. Drivers now face disciplinary action for violating either or both federal and/or state regulation as motor carriers must protect themselves from lawsuits.
Drivers who are owner-operators are not required to comply with meal and rest break rules since the laws apply only to employees.
Opponents, mostly Democrats, have also soft-pedaled the inherent difficulty for truck drivers to comply with meal and rest break requirements; the inability to find available truck parking for a 65- to 70-foot- long tractor-trailer in most of the nation’s metropolitan areas. That is a well-documented issue and Washington knows it. Nevertheless, those claiming that compliance with state rules is not problematic for drivers ignore both the reality of the truck parking issue as well as the Transportation Department’s own numerous exemptions allowed under federal HOS rules from its own half-hour break requirements.
Thankfully, there is some bipartisan support to maintain a traditional definition of interstate commerce.
Even Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), during a House hearing earlier this year, chastised her own party over wanting to allow states like California to shove its nose where it doesn’t belong.
During the run-up to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s final rule altering federal hours-of-service regulations in December of 2011, both drivers and motor carriers pleaded with the feds for “flexibility” in HOS regulations. That plea mostly fell on deaf ears. What has been amazing is how driver opinions on meal and rest break compliance have been manipulated — ginned up is another descriptor — by false and misleading statements by irresponsible and politically motivated entities.
Nothing places a driver in more of a HOS straightjacket than needing to comply with both state and federal requirements at the same time. It’s time for politicians to clean up what a court has messed up.
Editor’s note: Joe Rajkovacz is director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Association based in Upland, Calif. His background includes spending nearly 30 years as an active driver before spending 10 years working as an association representative in the trucking industry.