Supreme Court: State wage laws don’t apply to oil platform workers


Workers on offshore oil drilling platforms are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act—not state overtime and wage laws—and are not entitled to be paid for nonworking time they spend on the platform, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously confirmed last week.

In a California case, Parker Drilling Management Services Ltd. v. Newton, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act provides that federal law governs all law on the Outer Continental Shelf for structures attached to the shelf more than three nautical miles from the coast.

The plaintiff in the case, Brian Newton, worked on an oil drilling platform off the coast of California. He worked 14-day shifts, 12 hours per day on duty, and 12 hours per day of standby time. He was not paid the state minimum wage, which is higher than the federal minimum wage, and was not paid for standby time despite being unable to depart the platform when he was not working.

Newton filed a class action in California, alleging violations of state wage-and-hour laws, which require workers to be paid for standby time and when on breaks.

Citing precedent from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which hears the majority of these cases, the state district court had ruled against Newton. In doing so, the judge noted the Fifth Circuit’s decision that “state law only applies to the extent it is necessary ‘to fill a significant void or gap’ in federal law.”

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco subsequently sent the case back to the district court, deciding that state law is “applicable” under the OCSLA if it pertains to the subject matter at issue, a standard it ruled was satisfied by California’s wage-and-hour laws. The Supreme Court reviewed the case to settle the discrepancy between the Fifth and Ninth Circuit decisions, ruling that federal, not state, law prevails on the Outer Continental Shelf.

Read the ruling.