Truck drivers working in teams must be compensated under federal minimum wage laws for time spent in the sleeper cab even if they’re not actually sleeping, according to an appellate court decision from the 1st Circuit recently handed down. 

The case involves carrier CRST, which lost the lower court case in the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts. The lawsuit was filed in 2016 by several CRST drivers with a driver named Juan Carlos Montoya as the lead plaintiff. CRST appealed the case to the 1st Circuit.

The decision potentially is precedent setting in that the appeals court suggests no court has ever ruled on the question of whether a team driver should be compensated for time back in the sleeper berth that isn’t part of the eight hours of sleep time required under federal law. 

“We note that the parties have not identified, nor have we found, any published circuit court decisions addressing whether sleeper berth time constitutes compensable work for the purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act,” the three-judge panel wrote in a footnote.

Litigation over sleeper berth time and compensation is not new; Walmart was involved in a significant case several years ago that brought in several key industry players. But that involved solo drivers, not team drivers who are put together for the purpose of keeping equipment on the road and limiting the amount of time it needs to be sidelined because of federal hours-of-service mandates.

The question posed in the lower court and on appeal was whether “the time these long-haul drivers spend in the sleeper berth is ‘on-duty’ time within the meaning of Department of Labor regulations and if so whether CRST must compensate a driver who is on duty for 24 hours or ore for time that driver spends in the sleeper berth is in excess of eight hours within a full 24-hour period.”

CRST did not count that time in the sleeper berth as work hours to be compensated, and the plaintiffs did not argue that they should be compensated for the eight hours of mandated daily sleep time. At issue would be the difference between the time spent driving or working — up to 14 hours under HOS rules — and the 16 hours after the eight hour sleep time is deducted from the day’s 24 hours.

A footnote in the appellate court decision spells out what would be a stake. The initial pay period of Montoya, on a training program and getting paid just 25 cents per mile, was $233.38 plus a $100 signing bonus. 

Montoya’s hourly wage for actual hours worked exceeded $10 per hour in that initial trip. But the court noted that if the “excess sleeper berth time” was viewed as compensable, the amount he was paid would have dropped his hourly wage below the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.

The appeals court decision held that time spent in the sleeper berth by the second driver who was not behind the wheel was not true free time. It cited a Supreme Court interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act defining work as “physical or mental exertion, whether burdensome or not, controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer and his business.” It has become known as the “predominant benefit test,” with the time spent accruing mostly to the benefit of the employer.

An example was cited: Firefighters sitting in a firehouse playing cards are doing so because they are waiting to respond to an emergency and should be compensated for that. Police officers on call but free to do whatever they want to do as long as they can respond to an emergency do not need to be equally compensated.

CRST argued that the sleeper berth driver is “waiting to be engaged” and should not be paid.  

“In urging us to reach this conclusion, CRST observes that drivers can sleep, fix meals, watch television and access the internet while in the sleeper berth,” the court said in summing up the carrier’s arguments. “But the argument of the plaintiffs was that the drivers’ confinement to the restrictive environment of the sleeper berth means that such time predominantly benefits the employer and this is compensable work.”

The appellate court was blunt in its conclusion. “CRST’s argument turns a blind eye to the limitations inherent in the drivers’ physical location,” the court wrote. “Though drivers may

be able to engage in some leisure activities, the nature of these activities is restricted by the drivers’ presence in the sleeper berth of a moving truck — a small space, containing only some basic living essentials, that drivers cannot leave until the truck stops moving.”

Citing a Supreme Court precedent known as Armour that goes back to 1944, the 1st Circuit appeals judges said CRST’s “argument overlooks the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence establishing that the ability to engage in some leisure activities does not, in and of itself, render an employee’s time for the employee’s own benefit.”

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