DRIVER BEWARE: Documents that make drivers responsible for damages but don't specify the amount owed are examples of blanket authorization. According to Labour Canada, this type of authorization is okay for general guidelines, but follow-up documentation is necessary so the driver knows exactly what he owes and why.
OTTAWA, Ont. – When Allen Roulston signed the dotted line as a company driver with a new employer in May, he had no idea what he was getting into.
To Roulston, it seemed to be just a standard form outlining the use of a border crossing card and U.S. cash float. It was something he had seen many times before, so he simply skimmed over it and signed it without thinking twice.
However, what seemed to be just a standard form actually contained something which Roulston later learned was ‘blanket authorization’ – a term which is now the focus of his current legal battle with the carrier.
Roulston joined up with his new employer in May, hoping to help a friend improve his logbook skills. Early on, Roulston expressed his dislike of the company’s operating tempo, so he switched from highway to city driving June 1. On his first day of city driving, he stopped on a wide, unpaved shoulder with his four-way hazard lights on to look at his map and was totally unprepared for what happened next.
“After moving further right I set the parking brake and reached for my map book,” Roulston recalled. “At that moment a northbound transport truck passed me and the blast of displaced air hit my tractor and trailer. The rig rocked as it normally would in that kind of situation, but it didn’t seem to return to the original position. A moment later I felt the rig lean to the right again. By the time I realized what was happening, the tractor and trailer slowly fell to the right and ended up resting on its right side in a marsh. After climbing out of the rig, I discovered the unpaved shoulder had crumbled beneath the wheel on the right side of the rig.”
The carrier’s operations manager and owner arrived at the scene, as well as an insurance investigator, and the damaged freight was hauled out of the marsh, Roulston recalls. At that time, Roulston said the only reprimand he received was a comment from the company’s owner citing “bad judgement” on Roulston’s part for parking on the soft shoulder.
Roulston continued to work for the rest of the day and stayed with the company for another two weeks before deciding to quit, citing the company’s “erratic work hours and poor state of vehicle repair” as his reason for leaving.
“Upon my departure on June 24, I asked (the company) to mail my pay statements and final pay cheques to my home address. I was told this would be done. I was never given any indication (they) were planning to withhold my pay,” he said.
After taking some time off, Roulston returned home to find he still hadn’t been paid, so he called the owner.
“(The owner) informed me he had my pay cheques on his desk and he wasn’t going to pay me,” Roulston said.
“He indicated he was withholding the pay to cover the insurance deductible and other related expenses from the incident on June 1, 2005. He claimed it was within his right to withhold my pay as I had signed something giving him this right.”
At the time, Roulston had no idea what the owner was talking about, but he eventually recovered a copy of the document he had signed in May, and found the line of text the carrier’s owner was referring to.
It read: “Please note that if there are any damages to the truck that is caused by driver error that this will also be charged back.”
To the casual observer, it would seem that this line of text would hold Roulston liable, but according to a representative at Labour Canada, this form of blanket authorization is not valid.
“The employer can have a document which lays out some of the terms and conditions, but then they have to have another agreement specifying the rationale to ensure it meets the requirements of the first agreement,” said Neil Oster, program analyst with Labour Canada.
“Blanket authorization is okay for outlining some issues. For example, if you use a company cell phone to call home, you’d be responsible.
“But then the employer is responsible to add up the amount of the calls and give the employee a set amount he owes.”
Oster’s stance on blanket authorization is taken from Part III of the Canada Labour Code (Labour Standards) Section Three which asks “Can I simply have my employee sign a statement that he will be responsible for any damage he causes?”
The response reads: “A blanket authorization is not valid. In order for a written authorization to be valid, it has to show the exact amount being deducted, and be signed at the time that the deduction is made. In this way, the employee understands what he is signing and how/when it will affect him.”
So since Roulston was never approached to sign a secondary document outlining the exact amount being withheld and why, Oster says he may have a good case against his former employer.
But in addition to the invalid nature of blanket authorization, there is also the question of whether or not the damages to the truck were caused by driver error as specified in the document.
“The company would then have to come to the employee and tell them what constitutes driver error in this case,” Oster said. “Turning left onto a one-way street is clearly driver error, but parking on a soft shoulder leaves a bit of a gray area.”
Since Roulston has learned of his former employer’s intentions to withhold his pay, he has filed a complaint with Labour Canada and the case is still ongoing.
And though Truck News has contacted the carrier on numerous occasions to tell its side of the story, company representatives have declined to comment.
In the meantime, Roulston says he’s learned his lesson about signing forms without reading and understanding them properly and intends to be more careful in the future.
“This situation is proof that I’d gotten sloppy with reading over stuff that I sign,” he said.
“Other drivers should never sign anything that says they’re going to be responsible for damages. It’s not legal and it’s just going to mean a big headache for you.”