Democrats try to preserve state meal and rest-break laws

Lawmakers holding the purse strings on Capitol Hill are attempting to keep federal regulators from pre-empting states that choose to pass and enforce stricter meal and rest-break laws.

A draft version of the legislation in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives that funds transportation infrastructure includes a provision stipulating that none of the $677 million appropriated to fund the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) can be used to “review and issue a decision on a petition to preempt state meal and rest break laws.”

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (known as “THUD”) approved the fiscal year 2020 bill on May 23. Its next stop is the full committee for markup.

If signed into law, the provision would be a setback for carriers benefiting from recent decisions that help them avoid lawsuits filed by drivers alleging unfair work practices. They include a May 3 decision by a California federal court dismissing a class-action suit against U.S. Xpress [NYSE: USX], which itself was based on a decision by the FMCSA in December pre-empting California’s meal and rest-break rules in support of a petition filed by the American Trucking Associations.

“Trial lawyers would have won if this goes through, because it now puts a whole lot more companies in jeopardy for class-action lawsuits if they’ve been adhering to the federal rules rather than California’s rules,” a Capitol Hill trucking lobbyist who declined to be identified told FreightWaves. “And it would give [lawyers] in every other state license to do that as well.”

The FMCSA section of the THUD legislation also contains provisions that would bar the agency from eliminating the 30-minute rest break, which the FMCSA is contemplating in its revision of the hours of service rules, due out in June.

In addition, the Democrats’ legislation seeks to continue to exempt agriculture haulers of livestock and insects from the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate. It also would require driver violations be made public under FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, a provision that had been eliminated in 2015.

Prospects for the provisions making it through the legislative process, however, are not very good, according to one transportation policy expert.

“What you have is the inverse of last year, when Republicans put in policy riders supported by big trucking companies – now the Democrats are looking to reverse that,” said Jeff Davis, senior fellow with the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C.

However, Davis said, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) and Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) “agreed two years ago that they wouldn’t put policy riders in appropriations bills at all. So I would not expect to see those included in the Senate version for that reason. Shelby and Leahy feel they can get the bill passed and signed by the President much more easily if they don’t clutter it with extraneous provisions.”

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John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.

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