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Baltimore County sued over work-release wages at Cockeysville recycling facility

An Essex man who worked 10-hour days at Baltimore County’s recycling facility as part of a work-release program has sued the county, alleging it violated federal and state labor laws by not paying him minimum wage and overtime.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Maryland, Michael A. Scott 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 Cockeysville recycling center operated by the county’s Department of Public Works.

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The lawsuit alleges violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, and Maryland wage and hour laws. Lawyers for Scott are seeking class-action status to include others who worked at the recycling facility as part of the county work-release program.

The state’s minimum wage is $11.75 per hour.

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A spokesman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The county’s work-release program has been suspended since April 7 because of the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.

Scott performed manual labor at the recycling center between December 2019 and March 2020 while incarcerated at the county jail, according to the lawsuit. He and others were generally scheduled to work from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., five days a week, with half-hour lunch breaks.

“That work should be compensated, especially in an area where Baltimore County is making revenue,” said Howard B. Hoffman, a Rockville-based employment attorney representing Scott.

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Generally, about 20 work-release participants were working at the facility at a time, the lawsuit states. It says the county also uses a temporary staffing agency to place workers there — and they are paid minimum wage and overtime to do the same work as the people on work-release.

Hoffman said the county is “taking advantage” of people on work-release and is financially benefiting from their labor.

The county sells materials processed at the recycling facility, which “generated profits from its operations in 2018 and 2019,” the lawsuit states. In fiscal year 2019, revenue from recycled materials totaled $4.4 million, according to the suit.

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

“We believe that legally, there was an employee-employer relationship,” he said.

The lawsuit seeks unpaid wages and overtime; it doesn’t specify an amount.

Scott was serving time for two misdemeanor charges of theft under $100 and fourth-degree burglary, according to court records. Hoffman said he was “unjustly accused and unjustly convicted” and the charges stemmed from a dispute over a car title.

Hoffman said even a short period of incarceration can have significant economic consequences for defendants and their families, whose financial obligations like rent and child support continue while they’re locked up. Paying them fairly could help people better transition after incarceration, he said.

“Even if you don’t have sympathies for the person who was convicted of a theft of less than $100, you have to wonder about the economic consequences to those around them,” Hoffman said.

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