DEAF EAR FOR WORKERS' COMPLAINTS State no longer enforces its own wage, hour laws

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Baltimore Rebuilders Inc. abruptly closed in May, workers at the small company that refurbished carburetors said they were left with paychecks that bounced, missing credit union deposits, no medical coverage and no accumulated vacation pay.

After weeks of effort, the workers and their union were able to get cash for the paychecks and deposits in credit union accounts. But, they say, they still haven't received the vacation pay and medical coverage that they are due.

And, because Maryland has stopped enforcing wage and hour laws, some of the company's 70 workers may never get all their money.

"It's like having a police station and nobody in it," said David Wilson, the district director for Maryland of the United Steelworkers union, which represents the workers at Baltimore Rebuilders.

As an alternative, the union filed a case with the National Labor Relations Board last week to recover the accumulated vacation and lost medical coverage, according to Mary Win O'Brien, assistant general counsel for the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh. But the effort to get the money would have been easier if the state was still enforcing wage and hour laws, she said.

"That is a quicker way of collecting the amounts of money," Ms. O'Brien said.

But, unlike union members, most workers do not have an viable alternative and end up losing their money.

"People go away with a sad taste in their mouths about getting justice," said Charles H. Dorsey Jr., executive director of the Legal Aid Bureau Inc.

Baltimore Rebuilders, in the 5200 block of Fairlawn Avenue, closed primarily because of the loss of a large customer, said Herman Venick, president of the company. "The whole thing was a terrible shock to us," he said, declining to elaborate or discuss the former employees' complaints.

Mr. Venick is still involved in the operation of Accu-Drive, another automotive products firm, just down Fairlawn Avenue from the closed business.

Even though the state's wage and hour laws still exist, the division of employment standards, part of the Department of Licensing and Regulation, was disbanded last year as part of the state's budget-cutting effort. The division had 35 workers and a budget of about $1.5 million in early 1991, according to Nancy B. Burkheimer, an assistant secretary for the department.

Then, in July of last year, the division was cut to 20 workers with a budget of about $700,000. On Nov. 1, the entire operation was eliminated.

The division had been handling 5,000 complaints a year and collecting about $1.5 million on behalf of workers, according to Ms. Burkheimer. "The phones rang off the hook day and night," she recalled.

Even though the lines to the division have been cut off, the department continues to gets hundreds of calls a week about wage and hour problems, Ms. Burkheimer said. Those callers are now told to either call the federal agency in charge of those matters or to pursue the matter in district court.

Anyone calling the wage and hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor in Baltimore is likely to get a busy signal. Since the elimination of the state division, calls to the federal office in the Fallon Building in downtown Baltimore have jumped to 100 to 125 a day from 60 to 75 a day previously, said Travis M. Campbell, district director of the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.

A person who does get through might find the department won't be able to help. Under federal law, the agency is limited to handling minimum-wage and overtime violations. It can can collect wages due if the employer was paying the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour or if the person worked overtime during LTC the pay period in dispute.

But the department does not have the authority to collect wages above the minimum wage -- unless it involves overtime -- or accumulated vacation, Mr. Campbell said. For those matters, the person is advised to file a small claims case in district court.

The state agency was enforcing broader laws, which included most benefits paid to workers, including vacation payments and various payroll deductions.

The increased number of calls to the federal office is also handled by fewer people. There are now 14 investigators, two assistant supervisors and one clerk to handle complaints -- down two investigators from a year ago, Mr. Campbell said. Three years ago, there were 22 investigators.

Unlike the defunct state agency, the federal office does not just handle Maryland complaints. It also works on problems in Delaware, Washington, the Virginia suburbs of Washington and a few counties in West Virginia.

For complaints that can be handled with a phone call to the employer, the matter can be dealt with almost immediately, Mr. Campbell said. But for matters that involve a systematic violation of federal law, an investigation must be done, which often take months, he said.

Workers can also turn to the Wage Commission of the City of Baltimore, which enforces city wage ordinances. But the agency does not have jurisdiction over vacation pay or other wage deductions, such as credit union deposits, said commission director Jesse J. Hinson. Also, its authority ends at the city

boundary, he said.

The alternative of bringing a case in small-claims court is not an option open to many low-paid workers, said Mr. Dorsey of Legal Aid. "They don't know where to start," he said. And even if the worker gets a judgment against the employer, enforcing the judgment can be a strenuous effort by itself, Mr. Dorsey said.

"There is no real way for them to get relief," he said.

Legal Aid, a non-profit group that provides legal services to low-income people, handles only about 100 wage and hour cases in Baltimore each year, because potential clients don't have incomes low enough to qualify or can not be fit into the organization's caseload.

The elimination of the state agency hasn't raised any strong protests. "It went without a whimper," Mr. Campbell said. "We have a constituency, but it's not particularly vocal."

Ms. Burkheimer agrees, saying she has received no complaints from legislators about the demise of the service. She said most of the people served were in low-paying, non-union jobs and generally do not know how to make their voices heard. "We protected the employees who had no one else," she said.

Organized labor did testify on behalf of the program during the last session of the General Assembly, said Edward A. Mohler, president of the Maryland/D.C. AFL-CIO. But the agency was one among many that were getting the ax last year, and no legislator stepped forward to be the division's champion, he said. "The mandate was there to cut."

Unions are exploring other ways of helping workers who are denied wages and benefits by using volunteer lawyers to handle their cases or by setting up arbitration panels, Mr. Mohler said.

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