By: Nolan R. Theurer, Ryan McCoy, and Kyle Petersen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Effective April 8, 2020, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”) extended an emergency rule suspending “Hours of Service” rules that generally limit the number of hours certain truck drivers can stay on the road.  This marks the first time that the Hours of Service rules, in place since 1938, have been suspended on a national level, reflecting the need to keep interstate commerce moving so that essential home and health care supplies are replenished in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The FMCSA Hours of Service rules require truck drivers to drive only 11 hours within a 14-hour work period. They must then log at least 10 hours of “off-duty” time before getting behind the wheel again. The rules have an important safety purpose: they minimize the chance of exhausted truck drivers on the nation’s highways.  But these rules also allow federal and state governments to suspend their mandates in response to emergency situations.  The FMCSA’s Emergency Declaration marks the first time Hours of Service rules have been suspended nationally since they were passed nearly a century ago.

On March 13, 2020, the FMCSA issued its Emergency Declaration stating that the current national emergency “warrants an exemption” from the Hours of Service rules of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs).  The original Emergency Declaration provided some amount of relief for commercial motor vehicle operations providing “direct assistance” in support of emergency relief efforts related to the COVID-19 outbreaks so as to keep the flow of interstate commerce and necessary supplies moving across the country.

With the COVID-19 crisis continuing to grip the nation, on April 8, 2020, the FMCSA then extended its Emergency Declaration another month to May 15, 2020, or until the President revokes the declared emergency, whichever is sooner.  The FMCSA’s new declaration also expanded the list of approved transportation services under the emergency rule.  The list now includes transportation to meet immediate needs for the broad categories of: medical supplies and equipment, home and community health supplies, necessary persons, and necessary support for essential workers and critical infrastructure including supplies, equipment, raw materials and liquefied gases to be used as coolant.

The federal government’s suspension of these regulations impacting the ability of companies to quickly and efficiently get critical items across state borders is an important, and unprecedented, development. The Emergency Declaration will make it easier for trucking companies to respond to their customers’ urgent shipment needs and will help to address critical issues in the supply chain, but employers should be aware that the emergency rule is temporary and does not permit across-the-board suspension of Hours of Service rules.  The suspension applies only to truck drivers specifically responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and not to those performing routine commercial deliveries, even when those deliveries contain some of the items listed above.  The suspension also does not impact state laws not otherwise preempted by the federal regulations, such as state-specific meal and rest break provisions (the fate of which are still pending before the Ninth Circuit).