- A federal district court in Arkansas has declined to defer to a 2019 U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) opinion letter, calling into question the letters' weight. The court refused to decertify a class of long-haul truck drivers who claimed they were improperly compensated for on-duty sleeping time, despite a letter that appeared to contradict the drivers' claims (Brown v. P.A.M. Transport, Inc., No. 16-CV-5366 (W.D. Ark. Jan. 24, 2020)).
- The court originally ruled that time spent in a sleeper berth over eight hours must be compensated on shifts of 24 hours or longer. This was contradicted by a new DOL opinion letter that concluded truck drivers are not entitled to compensation for sleeper berth time during which they are permitted to sleep, no matter how long it is. Given the opinion letter, the trucking company sought to have the class decertified.
- The court denied the trucking company's motion, stating that it "found no reason to defer to DOL previously [and] need not defer to a novel WHD opinion now." Accordingly, it refused to decertify the class on this basis.
DOL opinion letters allow stakeholders to ask the agency a question and receive a response that experts have described as a complete affirmative defense in litigation for the letter writer. They also proved useful for other employers facing litigation, but Brown and a handful of other recent rulings have called their value into question.
Additionally, the instant case highlights a question that remains unresolved for the trucking industry. According to DOL Fact Sheet #22, an employee who is required to be on duty for less than 24 hours is working even though the worker is permitted to sleep or engage in other personal activities when the workload permits it.
An employee who is on duty for 24 hours or more may, according to DOL, agree with the employer to exclude from hours worked bona fide regularly scheduled sleeping periods of not more than 8 hours, if adequate sleeping facilities are furnished by the employer and the employee can usually get an uninterrupted night's sleep. No reduction from pay is permitted unless at least 5 hours of sleep is taken.
Long-distance truck drivers are often the subject of wage and hour disputes, given their unique schedules and work environments. Walmart recently agreed to pay more than $54 million to settle allegations that its drivers were not paid all money due on layovers — mandatory breaks imposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation.