Federal Agency Preempts California Wage Order Requiring Meal And Rest Breaks For Commercial Motor Vehicle Drivers

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies, Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education, Public Employers
DATE: Feb 25, 2021

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is tasked with issuing regulations on commercial motor vehicle safety. The FMCSA also has authority to determine that state laws on commercial motor vehicle safety are preempted following a multi-step process.

Under federal law, a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle driver “may not drive without first taking 10 consecutive hours off duty,” and “may not drive after the end of the 14-consecutive hour period without first taking 10 consecutive hours off duty.” Within that 14-hour period, a driver may only drive 11 hours.  Federal regulations also impose weekly driving limits.

In 2011, the FMCSA revised the federal hours-of-service regulations and adopted rules on breaks for truck drivers.  Subject to certain exceptions, a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle driver working more than eight hours must take a least one 30-minute break during the first eight hours.  This break requirement supplemented longstanding federal regulations prohibiting a driver from operating a commercial motor vehicle if the driver was too fatigued or unable to safely drive.

Under California Wage Order 9-2001, however, “all persons employed in the transportation industry” who work more than five hours a day are entitled to a “meal period of not less than 30 minutes.”  An employee is entitled to a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes when working more than 10 hours in a day.  Employees and employers can mutually agree to waive these meal breaks under certain circumstances.  The wage order gives transportation employees 10-minute rest breaks for every four hours worked.  An employer who fails to provide a meal or rest break must pay the employee one additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of pay for each workday that the meal or rest break period is not provided.

In 2008, a group of motor carriers filed a petition to the FMCSA seeking to preempt California’s meal and rest break requirement as applied to commercial motor vehicle drivers subject to the FMSCA’s hours-of-service regulations.  However, the FMCSA ruled that it lacked the authority to preempt California law because the meal and rest break rules applied beyond the trucking industry and were thus not “on commercial motor vehicle safety.”

In 2018, two industry groups asked the FMCSA to revisit its 2008 decision.  Following public comment, the FMCSA declared California meal and rest break rules preempted as applied to operators of property-carrying motor vehicles subject to the federal hours-of-service regulations.  California’s Labor Commissioner, labor organizations, and affected individuals challenged the decision.

In reviewing the FMCSA’s determination, the Ninth Circuit considered whether the FMCSA’s preemption decision was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”  The court noted that Congress expressly gave the FMCSA authority to preempt state laws “on commercial vehicle safety” if the agency decides certain criteria are met.  The court concluded that the FMCSA reasonably determined that a California state law “on commercial motor vehicle safety” was already addressed by FMCSA’s regulations.  Finally, the court found that the fact California law regulates meal and rest breaks in a variety of industries does not compel the conclusion that the FMCSA’s meal and rest break rules are not also “on commercial motor vehicle safety.”  Thus, the court determined that California’s meal and rest break rules were within the FMSCA’s preemption authority.

Further, the Ninth Circuit found that the FMCSA’s determination that California’s meal and rest break rules were more stringent than federal regulations was reasonable and supported.  The court noted that California law requires more breaks, more often, and with less flexibility as to timing.  It also noted that the FMCSA reasonably determined that the California state law: 1) had no safety benefit; 2) was incompatible with the regulation prescribed by the agency; and 3) would cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce.  Any one of these three enumerated grounds would have been enough to justify a preemption determination pursuant to the authority Congress granted the FMCSA.

For these reasons, the Ninth Circuit determined the FMCSA’s decision was entitled to deference, and the Labor Commissioner’s challenge lacked merit.

Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters, Local 2785 v. Fed. Motor Carrier Safety Admin., 2021 WL 139728 (9th Cir. Jan. 15, 2021).

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