Employment law is composed of statutes and regulations at multiple levels of government. It is perhaps inevitable that disputes will arise over the meaning of particular legal provisions. Courts have the responsibility of determining how to apply a law or regulation when its meaning is unclear, usually through a process known as statutory construction. If the “plain language” meaning of the rule or statute is ambiguous, they may look at the legislative history to see what lawmakers intended. A recent federal appellate court decision interpreted a statute based on the legislature’s use of punctuation. O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, 851 F.3d 69 (1st Cir. 2017). The court found that a missing serial comma, also known as the “Oxford comma,” in a list of exemptions from a state overtime wage law created a very narrow exemption, which did not include the plaintiffs. This meant that the plaintiffs were entitled to overtime pay.
State and federal employment laws require employers to pay non-exempt workers one-and-a-half times their regular hourly rate for work performed in excess of 40 hours in a week. States may differ in how they define exemptions from overtime law. New Jersey, like most jurisdictions, exempts workers “employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity,” as well as numerous specific jobs. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a4. The O’Connor case deals with Maine’s overtime statute, which exempts workers employed in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” various food products. 26 Me. Rev. Stat. § 664(3)(F). The dispute centered on the lack of a serial comma between the words “shipment or distribution.”
The “Oxford comma” appears before the final item in a written list of three or more items. For example, in the sentence “I would like an apple, a banana, and a pear,” the Oxford comma appears after the word “banana.” The same sentence without that comma is equally grammatically correct: “I would like an apple, a banana and a pear.” Usually, use of the Oxford comma is purely a question of style—some style manuals require it, while others do not. At times, though, the lack of an Oxford comma creates an ambiguity.