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Supreme Court rules truck drivers can’t be forced into arbitration



Contract truckers scored a major win Tuesday when the Supreme Court sided with them on an employment law issue.

In an 8-0 opinion, the nation’s highest court ruled that Springfield, Missouri-based trucking company New Prime Inc. cannot force its employee, owner-operator Dominic Oliveira, to settle disputes through arbitration.

Oliveira’s contract states that all disputes need to be settled through private arbitration. And the Federal Arbitration Act , requires courts to enforce those arbitration agreements — even though many scholars say arbitration benefits the company while harming workers.

But the arbitration law has a major loophole: transportation workers are excluded from it.

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Oliveira was labeled as a contract driver with New Prime. These contract drivers are more commonly called owner-operators in the trucking world, and they total 350,000 nationwide.

The conflict between Oliveira and Prime started when Oliveria sued New Prime in a class action suit for not paying minimum wage. As Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his opinion (emphasis added):

In a class action lawsuit in federal court, Mr. Oliveira argued that New Prime denies its drivers lawful wages. The company may call its drivers independent contractors. But, Mr. Oliveira alleged, in reality New Prime treats them as employees and fails to pay the statutorily due minimum wage. In response to Mr. Oliveira’s complaint, New Prime asked the court to invoke its statutory authority under the Act and compel arbitration according to the terms found in the parties’ agreements.

The ruling is a win for drivers, as well as independent workers nationwide because it allows them to settle disputes in court. Private arbitration usually prevents the worker from publicly releasing details of the case. It also nixes one’s right to an appeal, and a trial by jury includes more voices than a resolution by a single arbitrator.

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Additionally, it pushes the boundaries on a question that’s been plaguing America’s courts in recent years — whether truck drivers deserve minimum wage for non-driving duties. Oliveria’s class action case argued that he and his colleagues were deprived of fair wages.

A federal court in Arkansas decided in a class action suit in October 2018 that drivers should be paid for every hour truckers spend in their truck and are not sleeping — 16 hours a day of at least minimum wage pay.

It’s a move that speaks to other court cases appearing around the country in favor of ensuring truck drivers are paid for every hour they spend on the road.

In 2017, a Nebraska court decided that trucking giant Werner Enterprises must pay $780,000 to 52,000 student truck drivers for alleged pay practice violations. Another major carrier, C.R. England, paid $2.35 million in back wages to more than 6,000 drivers in 2016.

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