The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently announced that it was exercising its authority under federal law to rule that California’s meal and rest break laws are preempted and cannot be enforced against interstate motor carriers. The FMCSA’s ruling was in response to a petition filed by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association (SC&RA).  A big win for the trucking industry, this decision helps define regulatory standards for interstate carriers.

California state laws require employers to provide breaks for their employees for meals and rest. Employees working more than five hours in a day are entitled to receive a 30 minute meal break and, if work extends beyond 10 hours a day, they must receive an additional 30 minute break. Further, every four hours the employee must receive a 15 minute break. For years, interstate motor carriers have argued that these laws, as well as other similar state laws, should not be enforced against them because they are governed by separate hours of service regulations set by the FMCSA.

The ATA and SC&RA first fought the state laws in court, arguing that the provisions of the FAAAA, 49 USC 14501(c), which generally preempts state laws that regulate the routes, prices and services of motor carriers. These cases failed in the Ninth Circuit. See, e.g., Dilts v. Penske Logistics, LLC. The carriers advanced their arguments to Congress, supporting a bill that would have expressly confirmed that California’s laws are preempted. This bill passed in the House but failed in the Senate. Finally, the ATA and SC&RA petitioned FMCSA to use its authority under 49 U.S.C. 31141 to find that the state laws are preempted because they (1) have no safety benefit; (2) are incompatible with federal regulations; or (3) would cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce.

On December 21, 2018, the FMCSA announced that it would grant the petition and find the meal and rest break laws preempted. The agency concluded that the laws met all three criteria— they had no safety benefit, were incompatible with federal regulations and caused an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce. The FMCSA’s action was a big win for the ATA and SC&RA, who, in addition to filing the petition that led to the agency’s action, also lobbied extensively for it to be granted. With California’s meal and rest break laws preempted, carriers now have one standard to comply with: federal hours of service. Additionally, carriers are freed from the extensive damages they have faced in cases such as Dilts, in which class action plaintiff attorneys have collected for alleged violation of the now-preempted labor laws.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy with the FMCSA’s decision. The Teamsters Union has already filed suit to block its implementation, arguing that the agency’s findings are arbitrary and not supported by facts. The Teamsters specifically characterized FMCSA’s finding that California’s laws have no safety benefit as “ludicrous.” Notably, the union’s suit is filed in the same court—the Ninth Circuit—that previously ruled in Dilts that federal law did not preempt the state laws. However, that decision was on a blank slate, while the new ruling by the FMCSA must be upheld unless deemed entirely unreasonable.

If they can keep it, the FMCSA’s decision is undoubtedly a win for carriers and another recognition that transportation is a national industry that should not be subject to a patchwork of inconsistent state laws and regulations.