DOT wades into California break requirements, exempts hazmat carriers

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A U.S. DOT agency on Thursday announced that federal laws governing truck drivers’ work schedules trump California’s state laws requiring employers to provide periodic meal and rest breaks, but only for drivers hauling hazardous materials. However, it’s a win for groups who have sought to block California from enforcing its break laws upon motor carriers and drivers.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (a sister agency of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) will publish Friday in the Federal Register a so-called “notice of preemption,” which states that carriers whose drivers haul hazardous materials or explosives and those who must file security plans do not have to comply with the California meal and rest break laws.

PHMSA’s action comes in response to a request by the National Tank Truck Carriers Association. The agency says that hazmat and other carriers under the pre-emption cannot comply with the California regs due to federal laws that require their loads be attended to. The laws “are an obstacle to carrying out the requirements…with respect to such motor carriers,” PHMSA’s notice states. The laws also create unnecessary break requirements for these drivers, PHMSA says in its decision.

The issue of California’s meal and rest break laws has been prominent in recent years, both within the state and nationally. Groups like the American Trucking Associations and the Western States Trucking Association have pleaded for Congress or federal regulators to intervene and assert that federal laws governing hours of service pre-empt state-level laws. They say a 2014 court decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made carriers, even those based outside of California but who operate within the state, at risk of costly litigation for not providing drivers with paid rest breaks every 4 hours and a 30-minute meal break every five hours.

Western States filed a petition this summer asking FMCSA to waive the California requirements for drivers who haul oversized and overweight loads, but the agency has not yet issued a decision on that request.

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ATA and WSTA have lobbied for Congress to pass legislation to assert federal law over California’s labor law, which they say was intended by the 1994 Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act. Efforts(colloquially known as the Denham Amendment) have been taken up in both the Senate and the House in recent years to attach the measure to larger legislative packages, but those efforts have ultimately failed. Currently, the measure is under consideration in as part of Congress’ work on an FAA reauthorization bill and 2019 DOT-funding bills.

In its decision, made public Thursday, PHMSA cites the 1994 FAAAA (F4A) as the key reason for its decision to exempt hazmat haulers from the California break laws.

The National Tank Truck Association says California has 20 days to challenge PHMSA’s decision and 60 days to file a judicial review request.

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