SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – The latest court clash between California and the Trump administration will focus on truck drivers, as the state moved Thursday to overturn a federal decision allowing the industry to ignore the Golden State’s meal and rest breaks laws.
Since 2008, companies with truck drivers working in California have been required to follow the state’s rest and meal break laws after President George W. Bush’s administration decided California’s labor laws were not pre-empted by federal hours-of-service laws. The decision was a dose of relief for interstate truck drivers who were accustomed to driving long stretches without breaks on California’s highways.
At the urging of the trucking industry, the Trump administration wiped out the exemption in December 2018, finding that California’s rule was needlessly stricter than the federal standard. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration sided with trucking firms that didn’t like California forcing their drivers to pull over to rest and were tired of fighting class action lawsuits filed in the Golden State.
The safety administration reversed the 10-year-old exemption on the basis that it wasn’t providing safety benefits beyond the existing federal standard and that it was an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce.
With the exemption in the rearview, the trucking industry applauded the early Christmas gift from the Trump administration.
“This is a victory for highway safety, not trial lawyers,” said American Trucking Associations president Chris Spear.
But on Thursday, California Attorney General Becerra said the state will step in and try to reinstate the labor protections for commercial truck drivers in a petition to the Ninth Circuit.
“It is well within a state’s rights to establish standards for the welfare of our workers,” saidBecerra in a statement. “Truck drivers, like every other person protected under California’s labor laws across hundreds of different industries, deserve adequate meal and rest breaks.”
Stanford law professor William Gould IV believes the feds’ reversal is “not really based on solid ground” and hints of influence from the White House.
“This is, I think, a reflection of the political philosophy of the Trump administration, which does not take into account the rights and interests of working people here in California and elsewhere,” Gould said in a phone interview.
If allowed to stand, Gould says the safety administration’s decision could encourage the federal government to try and invalidate other areas where California has enacted worker protections, such as minimum wage and mandatory rest breaks in other industries.
In California, workers are entitled to 30-minute meal breaks for every five hours worked in addition to 10-minute breaks per four hours of work. Those rules will still apply to trucking firms operating solely in California, but not interstate motor carriers.
Federal regulations require interstate drivers to take at least a 30-minute break after eight hours of work, along with varying caps on both daily and weekly limits depending on whether the driver is carrying property or passengers.
California’s petition joins a similar challenge filed by the Teamsters union earlier this week, also in the Ninth Circuit. The union, which represents 1.4 million members across North America, says removing the California exemption prioritizes profit over safety.
“We are standing united in opposition to this decision. Highway safety for Teamster members and the public must never be put at risk just so that transportation corporations can eke out a little more profit,” said Teamsters general president Jim Hoffa in a statement.
Charles Lepins is a member of Local 848 in Southern California and drives for Sysco, a major food distributor. He says California’s labor laws “protect drivers like me from drowsy driving and injury, and keep our roads safe.” Lepins and several other truck drivers have joined the Teamsters’ Ninth Circuit suit.
On the other hand, truck drivers like Derrick Whittle with Cargo Transporters say a 50-state federal standard allows employees to follow the same rules regardless of what state they are in. Critics also argue that forcing truck drivers to park on the side of busy freeways is a major safety concern as California doesn’t have enough rest stops.
“As a driver, being safe and well-rested is my primary concern,” Whittle said in a statement. “Having a single set of rules to follow whether I’m in California or Colorado makes it easier for me to do my job.”
The safety administration declined to comment on Becerra’s filing, but said in its December 2018 decision that an overwhelming majority of the public comments it received supported nixing California’s exemption. It added the 2008 decision was not “carved in stone” and that California’s laws are basically redundant.
California Labor Secretary Julie Su says she wants the George W. Bush-era rules reinstated and that the state is in the fight for the long haul.
“In this reversal, the federal government would have drivers work up to 12 hours a day without breaks. We refuse to sit back and allow workers to be treated that way in California,” Su said in a statement.
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