Truck drivers: Employees or independent contractors?

Here's a little bit of law and a little bit of journalism. The Atlantic has an article – Truck Stop: How One of America’s Steadiest Jobs Turned Into One of Its Most Grueling – explaining how the trucking industry has changed for truck drivers. Meanwhile, litigation over whether drivers are employees or contractors continues unabated. In an interesting twist, there's a circuit court split over whether state laws on such matters are preempted by federal law. Here's how it is explained in a recently-filed petition for certiorari in BeavEx v. Costello.

Question Presented

As part of deregulating the trucking industry, in 1994 Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA). The law preempts all state laws “related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier . . . with respect to the transportation of property.” 49 U.S.C. § 14501(c)(1).

Operating in the open market under the protection of this provision, motor carriers in all 50 States use independent contractors for courier and delivery services. Some States’ employment laws attempt to prevent this chosen business model. Those laws define “employee” such that any driver working for a delivery company will always be an employee, never an independent contractor. Accordingly, those laws grant drivers the right to “employee” benefits. In short, some States, including Illinois and Massachusetts, force motor carriers to treat and pay their drivers as “employees.”

Applying FAAAA preemption, the First Circuit struck down that law in Massachusetts. On the other hand, in this case, the Seventh Circuit upheld a nearly identical law in Illinois.

The question is whether the FAAAA, 49 U.S.C. § 14501(c)(1), preempts generally-applicable State laws that force motor carriers to treat and pay all drivers as “employees” rather than as independent contractors.

A response to the petition is due May 23. Then we can wait for months to see whether the US Supreme Court takes up this case. My guess is they will.

[For recent decisions and pending employment law cases, see Supreme Court Watch.]