Ong cautioned against the passage of more laws to deal with violators. Putting more requirements on businesses, especially smaller ones, could "force them into an untenable financial situation," she said.

'We didn't willfully cheat'

Donald Sloat, 59, of Frederick said he spent 22 years at Hill Enterprises Inc., working his way up from carpenter to project engineer for the cabinetmaker, but quit after his boss stopped paying him in 2010. The Gaithersburg company, which eventually declared bankruptcy, often asked him to wait to cash paychecks or issued checks late, he said.

He said the company owes him $17,000 in unpaid wages and vacation time, but he doesn't expect to recoup the money.

The company filed for bankruptcy within days of Sloat's filing a complaint with state authorities. While he was listed as a creditor in bankruptcy filings, along with other employees, the company exhausted its remaining assets paying other creditors, according to an attorney for Hill Enterprises.

Philip J. McNutt, a Washington attorney who represented the couple who owned Hill Enterprises, said A. James and Rayola Hill suffered personal financial ruin trying to keep their business open.

Rayola Hill said that she and her husband ran their custom cabinet business for 45 years and that losing the company was painful. Hill said their company worked as subcontractor and ran out of money when contractors failed to pay them. In turn, she said, their company could not pay its workers. The cash-flow problem was worsened because their products were custom-made and could not be easily sold to other clients.

"We lost everything," Hill said. "We didn't willfully cheat anybody. We did everything we could. We pumped every dollar into it that we shouldn't have. We didn't look out for ourselves even when the attorney told us to."

McNutt warned that a wage-lien law could backfire. If more senior creditors do not get repaid because assets are awarded to former employees first, banks could tighten lending and small businesses might be forced to hire fewer workers, he said.

Sloat said he plans to lobby in Annapolis for added worker protections.

With his paycheck coming inconsistently — or not at all — for about six months, Sloat said, he resorted to selling his comic book collection from the 1960s and his wife's teddy bear from John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. When that wasn't enough, Sloat asked his elderly parents for help. He's unable to help pay college tuition for his 22-year-old daughter, who is working as a waitress.

"I feel stupid for staying as long as I did, thinking they would live up to their promises," said Sloat, who has found full-time work but at a lower salary.