August 16, 2023

FMCSA’s erratic history on meal/rest break preemption


WASHINGTON — The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s announcement last week that it will consider waiving federal preemption over meal and rest breaks laws in California and Washington caught some off guard, given that in 2018 the agency determined that those state regulations were preempted by the FMCSA’s own authority.

That determination, made at the request of the American Trucking Associations, was based in part on FMCSA’s opinion at the time that, with safety being the agency’s top priority, “having uniform rules is a key component to increasing safety for our truck drivers,” according to Ray Martinez, FMCSA’s administrator then

“During the public comment period, FMCSA heard directly from drivers, small business owners, and industry stakeholders that California’s meal and rest rules not only pose a safety risk, but also lead to a loss in productivity and ultimately hurt American consumers,” Martinez elaborated on that reasoning in a Facebook video post.

But Martinez’s FMCSA clashed with a determination made 10 years previous, in 2008, when a group of 11 carriers operating in California petitioned FMCSA for a similar preemption ruling. The agency ruled then that it lacked the authority to do so.

“Because the California meal and rest break rules are not ‘regulations on commercial motor vehicle safety,’ the agency has no authority to preempt them” under federal statute, FMCSA stated. “Furthermore, that statute does not allow the preemption of other state or local regulations merely because they have some effect on [commercial motor vehicle] operations.”

After being sued three years later by a group of appliance delivery drivers in California, Penske Logistics, one of the carriers that had asked for the 2008 determination, was able to dispose of the case in district court based on federal preemption under the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994.

In 2014, however, the drivers won on an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, with the FMCSA filing an amicus brief in their support.

“The agency [FMCSA] has specialized expertise in the regulation of motor carriers as well as broad statutory to determine whether state laws addressed to commercial motor vehicle safety should be preempted,” FMCSA stated in its brief.

“And the agency is uniquely qualified to assess the impact of state laws on the motor carrier industry in general and on federal safety regulations in particular. All these factors indicate that the agency’s views on the preemptive scope of the statute and federal regulations are entitled to substantial deference.”

With truck crashes trending up and a National Roadway Safety Strategy in place, FMCSA is under pressure to show it is doing everything it can to improve safety, which may include leveraging its waiver power under the agency’s federal preemption authority.

“The agency encourages waiver petitioners to include arguments that do not depend on a conclusion that the agency’s preemption determinations were erroneous,” FMCSA stated in its notice published in the Federal Register on Monday.

The Teamsters Union, which opposed ATA’s 2018 petition and FMCSA’s subsequent rulings on federal preemption in California and Washington, is “currently exploring our options” a Teamsters spokesman told FreightWaves when asked if the union would apply for a waiver.

The Teamsters believes FMCSA “is taking steps in the right direction” by accepting waiver requests, commented Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien.

“States should have the freedom to protect motorists and workers by implementing stronger meal and rest break requirements for professional drivers,” O’Brien said. “This prevents tragedy — not just for commercial vehicle operators, but for everyone who uses our highways.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.


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