Mind the Comma…
25 April 2017 by Neemah Ahamed
…the lack of a comma could cost a company USD 10 million in an overtime dispute
The oxford comma is the comma that is used before a conjunction (usually and or) in a list of three or more. It makes it clear that the final items are separate parts of a list, rather than a final phrase. Without it, meanings of sentences can change completely.
There has been a continuous debate over whether the Oxford comma is necessary all the time. In her style guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss acknowledges that “there are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”
An appellate court recently ruled in favour of Maine dairy drivers in a labour dispute that hinged on this debated piece of punctuation which could cost the company an estimated $10 million. In 2014, three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy for its failure to pay them more than four years’ worth of overtime pay. Maine law requires workers to be paid 1.5 times their normal rate for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carves out some exemptions. According to the state law overtime rules do not apply to:
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.
Delivery drivers distribute perishable foods. However in this case they did not pack the boxes themselves. Whether the drivers were subject to a law that had denied them thousands of dollars a year depended entirely on how the sentence was read by the court. If there was a comma after “shipment,” it might have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods.
The drivers argued that the overtime laws did not apply to them since “packing for shipment or distribution” encompassed packing for shipment and packing for distribution. The actual distribution was therefore not exempt. On the other hand, the dairy argued that packing and distribution were separate and were therefore both exempt.
The Court’s opinion began with the sentence, “for want of a comma, we have this case.” It was forced to weigh up each party’s interpretation of this particular provision of the overtime rules. It found that there was ambiguity, and ruled that the overtime exemption did not apply to employees engaged solely in distribution, as it would to employees engaged in “packing for shipment or distribution” of the products listed in the statute. As a result of this the dairy may have to pay out an estimated $10 million dollars to employees for overtime worked.
In a wider context, the case exemplifies the importance of precise drafting. It also highlights the need to carefully review contracts before you sign them to ensure that they reflect the terms of your agreement. If you are in the process of entering into an employment contract or settlement agreement or need one to be reviewed before you sign it, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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