The importance of knowing the letter (and punctuation) of the law

Unless you work in certain jobs or industries, you may not ever think about the laws that protect workers across New York. You might not be concerned with definitions or the “legalese” of every bill and amendment proposed and in place. However, in every law, every sentence — and punctuation mark — has the power to affect interpretation.

For instance, a recent dispute over unpaid wages came down to one single comma. The case took place in another state, but it serves as an important reminder to New Yorkers that when it comes to employee rights, the devil can be in the details.

The dispute involved truck drivers and their employers, and it centered on whether the drivers are entitled to overtime pay. The two sides were at odds over overtime because of how the law was written.

The law says overtime rules in the state are not applicable to “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of,” various food products. It is the “packing for shipment or distribution” phrase that caused the problems.

As you can see, there is no comma in that phrase. Whether that was intentional or not was up for debate, because state lawmakers are instructed not to use serial commas when drafting legislation. That resulted in the argument that the law does not exempt “distribution” of the products from overtime, but “packing for” the distribution of the products. 

Therefore, drivers argued successfully that drivers who distribute, but do not pack, the products should be eligible for overtime. That interpretation of the law, based on the lack of a comma, could cost drivers’ employers as much as $10 million in unpaid overtime.

Overtime pay is critical for any eligible employee, and non-payment should be taken very seriously. Employers who fail to pay overtime can be accused of wage theft and taken to court.

Employment laws are incredibly complex and confusing. Thankfully, you do not have to pore over every one and have a thorough understanding of them in order to be protected by them. If you have a question or concern regarding your rights as an employee, you can discuss them with an attorney experienced in employment law.

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