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The power of punctuation: Commas, business contracts and the law

Wage and hour laws are extremely important to employees. The take home pay of workers throughout the country is governed by these types of laws, and a simple mistake can result in a huge loss for employees.

This was recently highlighted in a case out of Maine.

What was the simple mistake in the wage and hour law? The mistake involves the interpretation of the state's wage and hour laws. Essentially, the court was called on to review which employees were exempt from overtime pay.

The court reviewed the law and determined that the statute in question was vague. The statute stated that employees whose work involves "the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) agricultural produce; (2) meat and fish products; and (3) perishable foods" are exempt from overtime pay. The workers argued that the lack of a comma in "shipment or distribution" means that "distribution" alone is not an activity that warrants exemption from overtime. Rather, in order to be exempt from overtime pay, the workers would need to "pack for distribution". Because the workers in question distributed food but did not pack the food for distribution, the court found that the workers were eligible for overtime pay.

What did this mistake mean for workers? A recent article in the Society for Human Resource Management discusses the case, noting that the mistake translated to $10 million in unpaid overtime for the workers. The publication uses the mistake to bring attention to the power of the language used in contracts. Using the wrong word or forgetting a punctuation mark may seem like a simple and unimportant mistake, but it can make a big difference in employment agreements and policies.

The case provides an important lesson for employers and workers alike. Language is a powerful thing. What may seem like a simple mistake in a contract can translate to huge losses. As such, it is wise for both employers and employees to have these agreements carefully reviewed by legal counsel.

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