FMCSA Issues Order Preempting California State Law on Trucker Meal/Rest Breaks

December 21, 2018

At 5:15 p.m. today – the Friday before Christmas – the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced that it has determined that California’s state laws requiring minimum meal and rest breaks for trucker drivers are preempted by federal hours-of-service laws. The determination by FMCSA came in response to petitions filed by the American Trucking Associations and the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association.

“Safety is FMCSA’s top priority and having uniform rules is a key component to increasing safety for our truck drivers,” said FMCSA Administrator Raymond P. Martinez.  “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.”

Federal law (31 U.S.C. §31141) says “A State may not enforce a State law or regulation on commercial motor vehicle safety that the Secretary of Transportation decides under this section may not be enforced.” Subsection (c) then limits the Secretary’s authority thusly: “If the Secretary decides a State law or regulation is additional to or more stringent than a regulation prescribed by the Secretary under section 31136 of this title, the State law or regulation may be enforced unless the Secretary also decides that – (A) the State law or regulation has no safety benefit; (B) the State law or regulation is incompatible with the regulation prescribed by the Secretary; or (C) enforcement of the State law or regulation would cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce.”

The official determination document from FMCSA says:

The FMCSA has determined that the MRB [Meal and Rest Break] Rules are laws on CMV [Commercial Vehicle] safety, that they are more stringent than the Agency’s hours of service regulations, that they have no safety benefits that extend beyond those already provided by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, that they are incompatible with the Federal hours of service regulations, and that they cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce. The California MRB Rules, therefore, are preempted under 49 U.S.C. 31141(c).

The petition from ATA focused on the “unreasonable burden” criteria while the petition from the SCRA focused on the “incompatible with Federal [regulations]” criteria. The new determination effectively overturns a decision made by FMCSA on December 24, 2008 rejecting earlier trucking industry petitions.

In order to even consider the three criteria under §31141(c), FMCSA first had to reverse its 2008 ruling and decide that the California law was related to trucking safety. The State of California had denied that the meal and rest break rules were safety-related, but the ATA petition cited the California Labor Commissioner as saying on at least two occasions that safety benefits were the intent of the law. The FMCSA petition (somewhat smugly) uses this to help justify its decision to reverse its 10-year-old precedent: “The Agency applauds California’s commitment to driver and public safety; however, the Labor Commissioner admits that the MRB Rules are, in fact, laws on CMV safety. Thus, the Labor Commissioner’s statements are new information, received well after the 2008 Decision, that further demonstrate that the MRB Rules are rules “on motor carrier safety” and therefore fall squarely within the scope of the Secretary’s preemption authority.”

That being decided, the FMCSA determination then had to figure out if the California rules broke any of the three §31141(c) criteria:

  1. No safety benefit. FMCSA found that the meal and rest breaks under California law added no benefit to the federal hours-of-service break system approved in 2011, and also found that “the increase in required stops to comply with the MRB Rules, when the driver may not be fatigued, will exacerbate the problem of drivers parking at unsafe locations.”
  2. Incompatible with federal regulation. This one seemed pretty clear-cut to FMCSA: “the MRB Rules are more stringent than the Federal HOS regulations; therefore, the requirements are not identical. Not only do the MRB Rules require employers to provide CMV drivers with more rest breaks than the Federal HOS regulations, the timing requirements for rest periods under the MRB Rules provide less flexibility than the Federal HOS regulations…The MRB Rules therefore are not compatible with the Federal HOS regulations.”
  3. Unreasonable burden on interstate commerce. The determination cited ATA’s arguments about how great a share of total US container traffic comes through California ports and a study by the American Transportation Research Institute showing that each California meal/rest break “required 12.5 minutes of additional time to locate a spot and then to return to the highway for continued driving” which, at an average truck operating cost of $66.65 per hour, meant that the MRB imposed a burden of $13.84 per hour of direct costs on interstate commerce. The determination also cited the specific examples given by several trucking companies that filed public comments before concluding, “The Agency determines that enforcing the MRB Rules decreases productivity and results in increased administrative burden and costs. In addition, the Agency believes it to be an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce for motor carriers to have to cull through the varying State requirements, in addition to Federal HOS rules, to remain in compliance, as commenters have described. As explained above, uniform national regulation is less burdensome than individual State regulations, which are often conflicting. Therefore, the Agency concludes that the MRB Rules place an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce.”

The issue of California meal breaks took off after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in 2014 holding the California law did not violate a different federal statute (49 U.S.C. §14501(c)) that prohibits any state from enforcing a law or rule “having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier.” In that court decision (which the U.S. Supreme Court let stand by refusing to hear an appeal), the Ninth Circuit held that the California law was not related to prices, routes or services.

This ruling caused ATA to repeatedly try to get Congress to pass legislation specifically preempting California’s meal and rest break laws on a variety of different bills. The ATA provision (referred to as “F4A” in shorthand because the underlying federal law in the Ninth Circuit case, §14501, was originally enacted as part of the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994) was attached at one point to the FAST Act, the recent FAA authorization bill, and the last few House-passed USDOT appropriations bills, but Democratic objections in the Senate meant it could never get over the finish line (even though federal preemption had the backing of Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee ranking minority member Bill Nelson (D-FL), as witnessed in this letter to FMCSA he cosigned).

Today’s determination prevents California from enforcing the same law that the F4A language would have overturned, but it did it through a separate provision of federal law that was not enacted in the 1994 F4A law.

The new determination appears to prevent California from enforcing the meal or rest break provisions on truckers in any pending or future action, and also appears to vitiate the need for the trucking companies to keep petitioning Congress for a legislative solution (unless and until today’s determination is successfully challenged in federal court). According to FMCSA, any successful challenge to the new determination would have to prove that FMCSA was wrong on all three of its criteria determination (no safety benefit, incompatible with federal laws/rules, and interstate commerce burden) and the incompatibility argument made by FMCSA looks particularly strong.

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