It has long been quarrelled over by writers but the ‘Oxford comma’ now has a new champion in the unlikely form of Christopher O’Connor, a lorry driver from Maine, and 50 fellow truckers. The drivers emerged victorious in a court case with their employer over overtime pay. Unusually, it hinged on the absence of the Oxford comma (also known as a ‘serial comma’) in state legislation covering overtime pay.
Quick grammar aside: The Oxford comma is used before the words ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a list of three or more things to clarify sentences in which things are listed. For example, the sentences “I love my parents, George Michael and Yogi Bear” and “I love my parents, George Michael, and Yogi Bear” have two very different meanings. Without the comma, it looks like the parents mentioned in the first statement are, in fact, George Michael and Yogi Bear!
The case in which the drivers triumphed involved a State law that states employees cannot be required to work for more than 40 hours a week without receiving overtime pay at 1.5 times their usual rate of pay. There are exceptions to the ruling, one of which covers workers handling perishable goods. This exemption states that the overtime law did not apply to those involved in “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.”
After being denied overtime pay, Christopher O’Connor and his fellow drivers sued their employer Oakhurst Dairy for four years of overtime pay, pointing out the absence of a comma after the word ‘shipment’. They argued this lack of a comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution” means the law refers to the single activity of “packing” – not to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities. As the drivers distribute – but, crucially, do not pack – the goods, this would make them eligible for overtime pay.
In a judgement that will delight fans of the Oxford comma everywhere, a US court of appeals sided with the delivery drivers because the lack of a comma made that part of Maine’s overtime laws too ambiguous. The case was directed to be sent back to the lower courts. This exercise in high-stakes grammar pedantry could cost the dairy company an estimated $10 million.
Previously, a district court had ruled in the dairy company’s favour, which argued that the legislation unambiguously identified the two as separate activities exempt from overtime pay.
Never let it be said that punctuation doesn’t matter. With thousands of dollars a year in back pay at stake, the Maine truckers would certainly disagree!