Court rules sleeper berth time in excess of eight hours is compensable

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In the last Legal Comment, we discussed a recent Massachusetts federal district court ruling. Specifically, we looked at the aspect of that decision which dealt with compensating drivers during various phases of an orientation program. As noted in that article, the court also addressed whether sleeper berth time in excess of eight hours should be counted towards a driver’s hours worked under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). 

The issue of compensability for sleeper berth time has been prevalent in the trucking industry in recent years. Some readers may recall that in July, the Department of Labor issued an opinion letter on compensability of sleeper berth time. While that opinion letter was carrier-friendly, the court in this case found that it did not control the situation at issue here. 

Background

As noted in the last article, the carrier in this case operates its own truck driver training school. The carrier requires most prospective driver-candidates to complete its four-phase driver-training program. In the final two phases of the program, drivers operate in “team-driving” arrangements. The fact that the carrier utilized the team-driving model is critical to the court’s ruling here. The court noted:

Time logs … indicate that some student drivers were confined to sleeper berths for long hours at a time…. Because of the nature of the team-driving model, [the carrier] requires a second driver to be physically present to begin driving when the first driver has exhausted his driving or on-duty time under [Department of Transportation] regulations. The second driver, by nature of the job, cannot leave the truck while it is in motion and must remain with or near the truck on long-haul trips across the country. For [the carrier’s] business model, the drivers are engaged to wait during non-sleeping time in the sleeper berth and other “off-duty” time and must be compensated to wait.

Both parties to the lawsuit agreed that eight hours of sleeping time in the sleeper berth was not compensable. The disputed issue left for the court to decide was whether the time spent not sleeping in the sleeper berth was compensable under the FLSA.

Court’s Decision

The court began its analysis by looking at the applicable regulations and the decisions interpreting those regulations. The driver urged the court to rely on 29 C.F.R. § 785.22(a) to set an 8-hour cap on non-compensable sleep time in the berth. That regulation applies “[w]here an employee is required to be on duty for 24 hours or more….” The court noted that other courts have issued inconsistent decisions on whether long-haul truck drivers are “on duty for 24 hours or more.”

The carrier pointed the court to 29 C.F.R. § 785.41 which provides that “[a]n employee who drives a truck … or an employee who is required to ride therein as an assistant or helper, is working while riding, except during bona fide meal periods or when he is permitted to sleep in adequate facilities furnished by the employer.” The carrier asked the court to defer to the DOL’s interpretation of the regulatory scheme as stated in the July 2019 opinion letter. In the opinion letter, the DOL adopted an interpretation of § 785.22(a) in which all time spent “in a sleeper-berth is presumptively non-working time that is not compensable.” The opinion letter therefore noted a “clear distinction between on-duty sleeping time [29 C.F.R. §§785.20-.22],” and “non-working time when the employer permits the employee to sleep in adequate facilities [29 C.F.R. § 785.41].”

The court, however, found that the opinion letter was not persuasive in the case before it. The court noted that the opinion letter addressed a situation in which “the drivers were permitted to sleep, on average, seven hours during a twenty-four hour period.” Specifically, the court highlighted that the opinion letter “did not address the situation presented here where some student drivers spent time in the sleeper berth that is substantially more than a normal sleep period.” The court continued by stating that even if the opinion letter were to provide that drivers could be relegated to a sleeper berth for long periods of time without pay, the opinion letter did not adequately support its position. 

Accordingly, the court ruled in favor of the drivers and held that “[s]leeper berth time in excess of eight hours must be counted towards hours worked.”

Takeaway

Carriers should be mindful of this ruling when making decisions about compensating drivers for time spent in sleeper berths, especially where the carrier is using the team-driving model. While the DOL’s opinion letter was favorable to carriers, as this decision demonstrates, courts are not bound by the interpretation contained in the opinion letter. As noted in prior Legal Comment articles, the federal district courts are split on this sleeper berth issue. This court has now weighed in on the side finding the time compensable based on the facts presented in this case. Furthermore, although this decision was made in Massachusetts, other courts across the country may use the reasoning used in this ruling in cases arising before them. Carriers should be sure to understand what the status of the law is in the jurisdictions in which they do business and should not hesitate to consult with experienced counsel when questions arise.

Note

On September 24, 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a final rule updating the federal overtime regulations. The final rule raises the salary threshold from the current level of $455 to $684 per week ($35,568 per year), raises the total annual compensation level for “highly compensated employees” from $100,000 to $107,432 per year, and allows employers to use nondiscretionary bonuses, incentive payments, and commissions that are paid at least annually to satisfy no more than 10 percent of the salary threshold. The final rule becomes effective on January 1, 2020.

R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow.  You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at rew@kingballow.com.  The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.