A “poison pill” truck driver pay provision tucked into a massive aviation reform bill came under fire from a leading Senate Democrat Thursday, but big trucking’s top lobbying group quickly defended the legislation, citing the industry’s need to operate on a single “coast-to-coast” system  rather than a “patchwork” of state laws.

At issue is language in the in the AIRR Act (HR 1441) that that spells out “Federal authority” over state and local laws. Backers say the legislation is needed because some states (specifically California and its courts) have repeatedly failed to recognize that federal preemptions under the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (F4A) apply to interstate trucking operations. As a result, trucking companies could be required to schedule and pay drivers according to the employment laws of each state in which they operate.

But Sen. Barbara Boxer, the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, held a Capitol press conference to blast the “mean-spirited provision,” and said it allows companies “dock employees’ pay when they take a meal or bathroom break.”

Boxer, urging her fellow senators to reject the language, argued that 20 states already have laws which would be overturned by this provision—laws, she noted, that have been upheld by the Supreme Court. 

“And it’s about more than pay,” Boxer said. “A truck driver who fears their pay will be docked—which will be most of them—will suffer from driver fatigue.  We know that driver fatigue and distracted driving are significant causes of truck-involved accidents. This terrible anti-safety, anti-worker provision is a poison pill and has no place in the FAA bill.”

The same language was included in the House version of the highway bill last fall, but Senate conferees working on the final bill negotiated its removal, Boxer added.

Boxer also cited support from a dozen trucking, labor, and highway safety groups, including the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. (OOIDA), the Truck Safety Coalition, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

To emphasize her point that not compensating truck drivers for time spent on “non-driving” responsibilities is dangerous, she cited a letter from OOIDA on the issue:

“This unpaid time creates undue pressure incentivizing drivers to drive farther and faster in order to remain economically viable,” OOIDA said.

Similarly, the Teamsters and other labor organizations wrote in their letter:

“[T]his provision would rob drivers of compensation for work performed other than actual driving, would overturn decades of lawsuits and judgements awarded to drivers because employers knowingly broke the law, and would greatly undermine highway safety by increasing fatigued driving and putting more drivers and other motorists at risk.”