The Oxford comma labor law dispute settles for $5 million

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The Oxford comma is probably the most divisive punctuation mark in the English language: academics root for it, journalists are torn over it, and the general public has some strong feelings about it. 

And recently, Oakhurst Dairy settled a dispute for $5 million because a policy lacked an Oxford comma.

What’s the Oxford comma? It’s also called the “serial comma” and it’s the comma used in a list of three or more before the words “and” or “or.” If you’re listing the influential people in your life, you could say that you love your parents, Jesus, and Oprah. Without the Oxford comma, you’d have this: 

It turns out the Oxford comma is worth more than just its academic weight. According to court documents filed Thursday, the lack of the punctuation mark cost Oakhurst Dairy $5 million the Associated Press reports. 

Last March, dairy drivers in Maine won an overtime labor case over the lack of Oxford comma in Maine’s labor laws. The three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy in 2014, claiming they should have been paid for four years’ worth of overtime labor.

According to Maine’s labor laws, anyone who works more than 40 hours a week is entitled to time-and-a-half. There were, however, exemptions:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce;

  2. Meat and fish product; and

  3. Perishable foods

“Distribution” is the key word here. Without the Oxford comma, “packing for shipment or distribution” is one activity that’s exempt from time-and-a-half pay. 

As the circuit judge overseeing this case ruled, the lack of a comma caused confusion over whether distribution” itself was exempt from overtime pay. 

Maine’s labor laws were updated last June to the following:

 The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

  1. Agricultural produce;

  2. Meat and fish products; and

  3. Perishable foods.

All of the commas — Oxford or not — have been replaced with semicolons, and “distributing” remains unquestionably exempt from overtime pay. 

And for comma enthusiasts, the truck drivers’ win was a victory. 

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