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Lack of Oxford Comma Bad News for Maine Employer

The Oxford comma is used after the last item in a list of three or more items, before “and” or “or.” Its omission was at the center of an overtime case in Maine.

A Maine state law provided that the following activities were not entitled to overtime protection:

“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.”

The case against Oakland Dairy centered on the word “or” between shipment and distribution. The drivers argued that statute was intended to exclude overtime pay for the activity of “packing” either for shipment or distribution. Since the drivers did not pack food, they would be entitled to overtime pay. Oakland Dairy contended that the overtime statute was meant to exclude the separate and distinct activities of “packing for shipment” and “distribution.” Inasmuch as the drivers did distribute food, they were exempt from the overtime laws.

Enter in the First Circuit Court of Appeals. The circuit court judge made it clear that the lack of an Oxford comma made the statute ambiguous. He utilized several conventions in an effort to determine what the legislature intended, including a Maine legislative drafting manual that instructed drafters not to use the Oxford comma. Without a clear way to resolve the ambiguity, the circuit court had to rely on a Maine law that required the liberal interpretation of a statute to further the purpose for which it was intended. Based on that lse, the truck drivers’ narrower construction of the exemption prevailed and they were entitled to overtime pay.