HR Strange But True

‘The Greater Part of the World’s Troubles Are Due to Questions of Grammar’

The most influential writer of the French Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne, once said, “The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.” Almost 5 centuries later, this still rings true!

comma

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You may have heard of the recent case surrounding the Oxford comma. For those of you who do not excel at grammar (you’re not alone; it is secretly my kryptonite), the Oxford comma is a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before “and” or “or,” also known as a serial comma. Apparently, many people care about this deeply, and in one recent case, it actually was the main focus of an entire lawsuit.

According to Mashable.com, the State of Maine learned its lesson on Oxford commas the hard way when a couple of dairy drivers decided to sue the state for overtime pay, citing the language of its policy due to the lack of the Oxford comma.

Mashable reports that the drivers sued for overtime pay for when they were driving and distributing the dairy products. “Distribution” is the key word here, however, “[It] is mentioned in a few lines about what tasks don’t count for overtime pay, but the thing is, those few lines fail to include an Oxford comma,” wrote Marissa Wenzke of Mashable.

The language in question all boils down to Exemption F of the Maine overtime law, which covers employees whose work involves the handling of certain food products. “Specifically, Exemption F states that the protection of the overtime law does not apply to “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of [emphasis added]: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

The drivers say that these words “refer to the single activity of ‘packing,’ whether the ‘packing’ is for ‘shipment’ or for ‘distribution.’ The drivers further contend that, although they do handle perishable foods, they do not engage in ‘packing’ them. As a result, the drivers argue that, as employees who fall outside Exemption F, the Maine overtime law protects them.”

In the court’s decision, Circuit Judge Barron said, “Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law’s protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.”

Barron added, “The District Court concluded that, despite the absent comma, the Maine legislature unambiguously intended for the last term in the exemption’s list of activities to identify an exempt activity in its own right. The District Court thus granted summary judgment to the dairy company, as there is no dispute that the drivers do perform that activity. But, we conclude that the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption. We, therefore, reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings.”

Most guidance you read on HR Daily Advisor will direct you to consult with legal counsel if you are ever unsure about your policies and procedures. However, you may want to consider hiring some proofreaders as well because I have a feeling this won’t be the last we’ve heard of the serial comma!

Melissa BlazejakMelissa Blazejak is a Senior Web Content Editor at BLR. She has written articles for HR.BLR.com and the HR Daily Advisor websites and is responsible for the day-to-day management of HR.BLR.com and HRLaws.com. She has been at BLR since 2014. She graduated with a BA of Science, specializing in Communication, from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2008. Most recently, she graduated in 2014 with a MS of Educational Technology.