By Warren Hoemann, PrePass consultant, former FMCSA chief counsel and deputy administrator

In late 2023, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston upheld a lower court decision, ruling that sleeper berth time beyond eight hours in a team driver operation was compensable. The case involved a motor carrier’s truck driver training program where driver trainees occupied the sleeper berth for ten hours and more while their veteran co-drivers operated the truck.

The carrier argued that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) hours-of-service (HOS) regulations limited drivers’ workdays to 14 hours and required a minimum of 10 hours off-duty, which the driver trainees happened to spend in the sleeper berth. The carrier also claimed that those trainees were not “on duty” and eligible for compensation while in the sleeper berth. The court instead held that Department of Labor (DOL) regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) applied when determining compensation and required compensation after eight hours of off-duty time.

For motor carriers considering truck driver compensation, the ruling case offers at least three major lessons:

Lesson #1: Statutes matter.  The court said this was a case about compensation, which fell under the DOL mandate. By comparison, FMCSA regulations fall under the Department of Transportation statutory authority, whose primary purpose is highway safety. The court determined that DOL regulations had priority.

Lesson #2: Regulations must be read in context.  Two separate DOL regulations came before the court, one of which the carrier asserted, still allowed it to forego compensation for sleeper berth time. The court held that regulations cannot be read independently but must be seen as a unified whole, supporting the goals of the overlying statute. Here, it so happened, that the carrier’s treatment of sleeper berth time effectively paid the driver trainees less than the federal minimum wage set forth in the FLSA.

Lesson #3: Facts matter.  The court applied the “predominant benefit test” to determine whether a carrier must pay for an employee’s time. The court reviewed several decisions involving employee compensation for “off-duty” time. Firemen, as one case decided, were entitled to compensation for time spent at the station playing cards and fixing meals because they were “engaged to wait” and needed to respond immediately to an alarm. There, the employer received the “predominant benefit” of the firefighters’ time, even though they were not actually fighting fires at the time. By contrast, another case determined that medical employees’ mealtimes were not for the employer’s predominant benefit. When the employee could leave the workplace for the meal and was not interrupted during that time, it did not qualify as compensable work.

Facts matter, and here the court focused on the confined nature of a sleeper berth, where the driver trainees could not stand up, move around, utilize bathroom facilities except at truck stops or escape the noise and vibration of the truck, despite being “free to do” whatever they wanted while “off-duty.” In the court’s view, this hardly amounted to leisure time. Instead, the court found that the “predominant benefit” of this team driving operation belonged to the carrier, who conceded that the company benefited from the truck’s continuous operation.

The bottom line for motor carriers considering truck driver compensation, the effective pay rate must at least reach that of the federal minimum wage. Calculating that effective pay rate is very fact specific. Is the driver “confined” to the sleeper berth throughout the mandatory 10 hours off-duty? Is the driver, like the firemen at the fire station, required to always remain with the truck even when off-duty? Who predominantly benefits from how the driver’s off-duty is spent, the trucking company or the driver?

The PrePass blog and podcasts are published as a public service of PrePass®, the most reliable and technologically advanced weigh station bypass and integrated electronic trucking toll payment platform in North America. PrePass also includes INFORM™ Safety and INFORM™ Tolling software for improving truck safety scores and lowering toll costs.