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Baltimore County Council approves outside law firm in class-action lawsuit over work-release pay

The Baltimore County Council on Monday night approved a $450,000 contract with an outside law firm to defend the county against a class-action lawsuit alleging the county violated federal and state labor laws by not paying minimum wage and overtime to work-release inmates.

Greenlit by a 7-0 vote, the county has hired the law firm Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough to serve as co-counsel on the federal case brought by an Essex man incarcerated at the Baltimore County Detention Center who participated in the detention center’s work-release program at the Cockeysville recycling center, operated by the county’s Department of Public Works.

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Michael A. Scott, the plaintiff in the case, says he and others in the county detention center’s work-release program were paid a flat rate of $20 a day to work at the recycling center and were not granted overtime although the lawsuit asserts they often worked more than 57 hours a week.

The lawsuit alleges violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, and Maryland wage and hour laws.

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Maryland’s minimum wage is $11.75 per hour.

“These types of arrangements come with a cost,” said Scott’s attorney Howard Hoffman, adding that Scott missed payments to his landlord. “What happens to the children that are left behind? What happens to the car payments?”

The practice “creates a loop of poverty,” he said.

Courts have generally held that inmates are not considered employees protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act — but Hoffman has said this situation is “not an example of prison labor.” Scott and others participated in the county work-release program voluntarily, not as part of a criminal sentence or rehabilitation, he said.

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A 1993 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals 4th Circuit opined that inmates are not protected under federal labor laws.

The opinion stems from a lawsuit filed by a former inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup asserting he was entitled to minimum wage compensation because of his participation in a work program at a graphic print shop run by State Use Industries of Maryland.

The court wrote that inmates performed work for State Use Industries “not to turn profits for their supposed employer, but rather as a means of rehabilitation and job training.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

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