The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) is one of the fundamental labor laws of the United States. Passed by Congress to correct and eliminate conditions detrimental to the “health, efficiency, and general well-being” of American workers, it establishes minimum wage, overtime-pay, recordkeeping, and youth-employment standards that affect employees in the private sector as well as in federal, state, and local governments. Section 7 of the FLSA prescribes the rules for overtime pay and requires that covered employees receive compensation for hours worked in excess of 40 per workweek (defined as any fixed and regularly recurring period of 168 hours— that is, 7 consecutive 24-hour periods) at a rate not less than 1.5 times the regular rate of pay.
The FLSA does not apply to all workers, however. The statute and its accompanying regulations contain hundreds of exemptions, which have led to the exclusion of certain groups of workers from FLSA coverage on a case-by-case basis. A unique exemption to the FLSA’s overtime rules applies to “any employee with respect to whom the Secretary of Transportation has power to establish qualifications and maximum hours of service” pursuant to the provisions of the Motor Carrier Act of 19359 (MCA). Therefore, while under the FLSA employers must pay eligible employees overtime for hours worked in excess of forty hours per workweek, the MCA exempts from this requirement any employee who is engaged in activities that directly affect the safety of motor vehicles that transport passengers or property across state or national borders.
The MCA exemption affects thousands of employees on a daily basis and is useful for employers engaged in interstate commerce, but it is not always clear which employees are exempt. Courts are divided as to whether the MCA exemption should be applied based on an employee-by-employee analysis or based on a classwide analysis. In a trilogy of cases decided in 1947, the Supreme Court suggested both that an individual analysis of each employee is required and, in contrast, that the class of employees to which an individual belongs can be used to determine FLSA-exempt status. In the aftermath of these decisions, federal circuit courts have not reached a consensus on how the MCA exemption should be applied.