Federal minimum wage and overtime laws don’t apply to heavy-duty truck drivers, but they do apply to employees driving trucks weighing 10,000 pounds or less. The legal controversy until now has been: How do you go about defining that category of vehicles when their actual weight comes under dispute?
The answer may sound obvious to readers who have had experience in trucking operations. For many years, manufacturers have defined most light-duty trucks as being 10,000 pounds Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) or less. That rating is assigned by manufacturers and it combines the weight of the truck itself with the weight of the legal maximum load.
Falling into the category of 10,000 GVWR or less vehicles used in business are most pickup trucks, step vans and cargo vans. (Heavy-duty trucks are typically defined as being 80,000 pounds GVWR, which includes the maximum load, and medium-duty trucks that fill the other ranges in between light- and heavy-duty.)
The Motor Carrier Act of 1980 (MCA) created the wage and hour exemption, but the problem since then has been that over the years people have tussled continuously over whether the vehicle weight defined in federal labor laws refers to the manufacturer’s GVWR or instead to the actual loaded weight of the truck as measured on a scale.
Recently, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals delivered a ruling that may have finally settled the matter by stating that the GVRW rating should be considered the appropriate weight for this particular application of labor law. The second question that previously hung over these kinds of suits—which party should be responsible proving the vehicles’ weight—also was settled by the appeals court, which holds that it is the responsibility of the plaintiffs.
The case began when two employees who previously worked as cementers for a company in the oil field services industry sued their former employer for unpaid overtime wages. The company presented evidence that the employees operated Ford F-350 trucks, which have a GVWR of 10,000 to 14,000 pounds. However, the employees contended that when the vehicle they drove was actually weighed on a scale it would come in at less than 10,000 pounds.
In making its decision, the appeals court chose to give significant weight to the U.S. Department of Labor guidance that says the weight of vehicles should be determined by relying on the GVWR, and not the actual weight of the vehicle.
“This straightforward decision touches on every aspect of small vehicle exception litigation,” point out attorneys Claire Deason and David Jordan of the law firm of Littler Mendelson.
“Now that it is decided that it is the plaintiff employee—not the defendant employer—who must prove that the small vehicle exception applies in the Fifth Circuit, employers should consider whether plaintiffs also bear the burden of proof for other aspects of the exception to the MCA exemption.”
Nonetheless, they warn that other questions remain unanswered. Do plaintiffs now bear the burden of proving that they operated multiple vehicles of varying weights (to establish a “mixed fleet” scenario)? Must they also demonstrate how frequently they operated the small vehicles? Do they need to prove the driving was work-related and not voluntary?
Deason and Jordan also wonder what impact this will have on other exemptions contained in the law, such as those dealing with vehicles hauling hazardous materials, or passenger vehicles, and whether plaintiffs also must prove those elements where they are at issue.