A missing comma in Maine’s overtime law could cost a Portland company more than $10 million.
Truck drivers at Oakhurst Dairy have filed a class action lawsuit for overtime pay, and this week a judge decided the case can proceed because the law is ambiguous, due to a lack of punctuation.
The law states that Maine overtime rules do not apply to:
“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.”
Under Oakhurst’s interpretation of the law, truck drivers distribute perishable foods – and should not be eligible for overtime.
But grammar experts agree with the judge: there’s ambiguity that could have been fixed with what’s called an “Oxford comma.”
“Technically, linguistically, [Oxford commas] are not required,” said University of New England English Professor and Chair Susan McHugh.
She said the necessity of the Oxford comma is the most hotly debated topic in grammar – and even organizations like the Associated Press have style guides that call for journalists not to use them in writing.
The comma is used between the last two items in a list. Here’s an example of the difference the Oxford comma can make:
“Entrees include your choice of side dish: potatoes, fries, salad, rice and beans.”
“Entrees include your choice of side dish: potatoes, fries, salad, rice, and beans.”
Without the Oxford comma, it’s not clear if the option is a side dish of rice and beans, or if rice and beans are separate options to choose from.
“More often than not, the Oxford comma clarifies rather than confuses,” said McHugh. “I believe the Oxford comma is called for in most cases.”
In this case, McHugh says there should be an Oxford comma between the words “shipment” and “or,” to clarify that the overtime law is listing a series of jobs exempt from pay.
Without the comma, there’s room for truck drivers to interpret the sentence as meaning “people who pack for shipment or people who pack for distribution” are exempt from overtime.
“For want of a comma, we have case,” the judge wrote, allowing the class action suit to proceed.
Now, this polarizing punctuation mark could become the crux of the court case.
“We believe we are in compliance with state and federal wage laws, and we will continue to defend ourselves in this matter,” said Oakhurst President John Bennett.