In late 2018, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) announced it would grant petitions to preempt California’s break rules for truck drivers, which it said conflicted with federal regulations. While some in the industry applauded the move, others criticized it, saying it compromises public and truck driver safety. One organization has already petitioned the court to overturn the FMCSA’s decision, with a briefing regarding the matter scheduled for March. Given concerns about trucking safety and overtired drivers, and the role fatigue plays in motor vehicle accidents, any move that reduces break time for truck drivers may mean increased risk on the roads.
FMCSA Finds California Rules Incompatible with Federal Trucking Regulations
According to the FMCSA’s decision, which was issued Dec. 21, 2018, federal law preempts state laws regarding commercial motor vehicle drivers—even if state laws are more stringent than federal regulations—if the state laws have no safety benefit, are not compatible with federal regulations, or cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce. The FMCSA claims that California’s meal and rest break rules fit all three requirements, leading the agency to allow the petition requesting federal regulations to preempt California’s.
The administration issued its order after the American Trucking Associations filed a petition in Sept. 2018 asking the agency to exempt truck drivers from California’s meal and rest break rules. That petition was followed by an Oct. 28 petition from the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association.
Under California’s meal and rest break rules, employees cannot work for more than five hours a day without having a meal period of at least 30 minutes, unless the total work period in that day is not more than six hours. Furthermore, an employee cannot work for more than 10 hours per day, without two meal breaks of no fewer than 30 minutes, unless the total hours worked are no more than 12 hours. The employee must be relieved of all duty during that meal period or the period counts as time worked, and if the employee does not receive an adequate break, he or she must be paid an additional hour of work at the regular pay rate. The first meal break can be waived if both employer and employee agree to the waiver. The second break can similarly be waived – but only if the first meal period was not waived.
Regarding rest periods, workers must receive 10 minutes of rest time for the first four hours they work and an additional 10-minute rest time if they continue working for more than two and up to four hours. In other words, a work day that is more than 6 hours and up to 8 hours would require two 10-minute rest periods. A work day lasting more than 10 and up to 12 hours would require three rest periods. However, no rest period is required for employees who work less than three and one-half hours per day.
Under the far less stringent federal hours of service rules, drivers involved in interstate commerce must take at least 30 minutes off duty no later than 8 hours after they begin their shift if they will continue driving more than eight hours during their shift. Federal regulations also prohibit truck drivers from operating a commercial motor vehicle while impaired by illness or fatigue.
Critics Worry that the Trucking Industry is Putting Profits over Safety
Following the ATA’s petition, a group of Democrats in Congress sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, arguing that any preemption would drastically affect the rights of states to protect public and highway safety. The same letter noted that truck drivers had the right to waive their meal and rest breaks, so long as they received adequate compensation for doing so.
The American Association for Justice also opposed the petition and responded to the FMCSA’s announcement calling the ruling misguided. The association further noted that there is no evidence that California’s meal and rest break laws have any negative impact on trucking safety.
In fact, an FMCSA study found 13 percent of commercial-vehicle drivers who were involved in a trucking accident were suffering fatigue at the time of the truck crash.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters also submitted a petition to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the FMCSA’s preemption ruling, calling the decision ludicrous.
“The idea that providing a 10-minute rest break after four hours and a 30-minute meal break after five hours somehow makes the roads less safe is beyond comprehension,” the Teamsters said. “This is simply a giveaway to the trucking industry at the expense of driver safety.”
For large California cities, like Los Angeles, which see a great deal of commercial truck traffic, the issue of safety is one that many take seriously.
California Trucking Rules Previously Upheld by FMCSA
In 2008, the FMCSA upheld California’s meal and rest break rules finding that they were not regulations on commercial motor vehicle safety because they extended far beyond the trucking industry. This, the agency noted at the time, meant that the state’s meal and rest break rules were not within the FMCSA’s authority to declare unenforceable. In 2018, however, the American Trucking Associations submitted its petition along with evidence it felt proved California’s meal and rest break rules compromised safety, requesting the FMCSA reconsider its earlier decision.
Meanwhile, in 2014, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling that trucking companies in California were required to ensure truck drivers received their proper meal and rest breaks.