Who Said Commas Don’t Matter? Certainly Not Oxford Editors
Oakhurst Dairy has agreed to pay $5 million to its drivers after Boston’s 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals court found ambiguity in a matter concering state overtime law last year because it lacked an Oxford comma. The settlement between the company ended an issue that began back in 2014 and “electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs” according to media coverage following the case.
“For want of a comma, we have this case,” U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit Judge David Barron said in March 2017. Different style guides have different rules regarding the comma. The Oxford comma gets its name because it was preferred by editors at the Oxford University Press.
The federal appeals court ruled that an exception included in the overtime law made it ambiguous whether the law applied to workers involved in food distribution, which would include Oakhurst’s drivers. The statute indicated that employees were not entitled to overtime if their jobs involved ‘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”. Because of a missing comma and the unintended uncertainty it posed, the court said the law should be interpreted in favor of the drivers.
At issue was whether “packing for shipment or distribution” was one activity involving packing, which meant drivers could receive overtime pay because they didn’t pack food, or two separate activities, which meant distribution workers would not be entitled to overtime. If an Oxford comma had been inserted after the word “shipment” it would have been clear that distribution was a separate activity.
The settlement called for the “named plaintiffs,” the five drivers who initially filed the lawsuit, to receive $50,000 each. Other drivers will have to file claims to get a share of the payout and will be paid a minimum of $100 or the amount of overtime pay they were owed. The payment will be based on work completed between May 2008 until August 2012. According to the company’s records, an estimated 127 drivers will be covered by the settlement.
“We are pleased the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all parties,” David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, said of the settlement.
The overtime clause has since been revised, of course, with semicolons inserted. It provides an overtime exception for workers involved in “the canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of: (1) agricultural produce; (2) meat and fish products; and (3) perishable foods.”
Oakhurst did not admit to any wrongdoing in the matter, and the Maine Legislature said the revision was intended to make clear that the distribution of certain foods is exempt from the law governing overtime pay. “It clarifies the intent of the legislature, to conform with federal law, that the distribution of certain products is exempt from the provisions governing overtime pay,” according to the change summary. “It amends the 1995 law by reordering the series of exempt tasks for the purpose of eliminating any perceived ambiguity.”