Ah, the Oxford comma. Journalists often fight over it, academics love it and a lot of people don’t care about or even know what it is. But this singular bit of punctuation is actually super important.
Just ask a couple dairy drivers in Maine who recently won a labor case and overtime pay — all because of the state’s failure to slip in that crucial piece of punctuation into its labor policy guidelines.
If you don’t already know, the Oxford comma is the last one in a series, such as in the sentence: “I like to run, skip, and jump.” Take out that Oxford comma and the sentence reads like this: “I like to run, skip and jump.” Sometimes, the lack of a comma can leave ambiguity in the sentence.
So what does this have to do with a bunch of workers trying to get overtime pay?
Well, the Maine dairy drivers sued their employer for overtime pay that would have applied to when they were driving and distributing dairy products. “Distribution” 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. And the result is confusion about whether or not distribution really is left out of overtime pay.
As explained in the circuit judge’s ruling, the state labor guidelines in question are the following, called Exemption F, which lists which work activities do not count for overtime pay:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
Meat and fish product; and
If there was an Oxford comma after “packing for shipment” then neither “packing” not “distribution” would be covered by overtime pay. However, without it, “packing for shipment or distribution” count as one activity: packing. Distribution is not covered in the list of overtime exemptions. So they should get paid for it.
Of course, the state argued it did not mean to exclude “distribution” from that clause about overtime pay, but they didn’t make that clear through such a poorly written sentence, as explained in the court’s ruling.
“If the drivers engage only in distribution and not in any of the standalone activities that Exemption F covers … the drivers fall outside of Exemption F’s scope and thus within the protection of the Maine overtime law.”
The new federal appeals court decision reversed a previous ruling for the case, which was first filed back in May 2014. And the new decision came down for just one reason, as the first line of the court ruling said. “For want of a comma, we have this case.”
Like them or loathe them, those Oxford commas have their uses.