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Homeless workers cheated out of $19,000 in wages

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The owner of a janitorial service recruited about 30 workers from Baltimore's homeless shelters, put them to work on a state construction job and then disappeared without paying most of them even a penny.

Buddy London Jr., owner of a cleaning firm called Storm $H Troopers, stood outside the soup kitchen Our Daily Bread in April, promising homeless people $5 an hour cash -- less than half the required wage -- for cleaning up construction debris at a University of Baltimore building.

Maryland law requires all employers at state-funded construction jobs to pay workers a "prevailing wage," in this case $11.17 an hour.

In late June, Mr. London took his equipment from the still-unfinished $11.1 million Robert G. Merrick School of Business building, at the corner of Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue, and dropped out of sight. The workers, state officials and even Mr. London himself confirm that Storm Troopers owes the homeless men and women more than $19,000.

Although state wage law investigators finally located Mr. London Thursday, and won an agreement from Triangle Construction Co., the general contractor that hired him, to pay the wages this week, the homeless workers remain skeptical.

They've been hearing similar promises of future payment for months: from Mr. London, who says he's broke; from Triangle, which insisted on verification of the workers' claims; and from the underfunded state wage enforcement agency.

"Homeless people are unprotected," said Michael Rhodes, who is owed 10 weeks' wages. "I am very angry . . . upset and heartbroken."

The 46-year-old Baltimore native, who became homeless when he lost another janitorial job in March, was thrilled to be hired by Mr. London in April.

Jobs are hard to find, Mr. Rhodes said, and a steady income "meant I wouldn't have been living in the shelter."

After receiving a token payment for work in April, Mr. Rhodes and some others worked for another 10 weeks "because we kept on thinking and wishing and hoping he would pay us. It didn't sound right, but we didn't want to give up hope."

Their dreams of escape from the shelters were crushed in late June, however, when they showed up for work and discovered Mr. London and his equipment were gone.

Mr. London "has taken advantage of people" lacking the resources to fight back, Mr. Rhodes said.

Although Storm Troopers may be the single biggest case of unpaid homeless workers in Baltimore to date, their story is not unique. Unscrupulous employers have long taken advantage of homeless people, said Peter Sabonis, legal director of the Homeless Persons' Representation Project.

"Exploiting people who are vulnerable has always been a problem," Mr. Sabonis said.

Money-losing contract

But Mr. London insisted last week that he was trying to help, not exploit, the homeless workers. The soft-spoken 36-year-old said

he wanted to apologize to his workers.

Interviewed at his sparsely furnished Northwest Baltimore home Wednesday evening, Mr. London portrayed himself as a "good Samaritan" who wanted to help the homeless but got "suckered" into a money-losing contract with Triangle.

Mr. London, who said he's been cleaning up construction sites for five years, said he was hungry for the Merrick job because he had been without work all winter.

So he ended up cutting his bid, finally offering to clean the five-story, 115,000-square-foot building for $1,500 less than the next-lowest bid; that meant he'd get only about $10,000.

At that price, he said, he knew he couldn't afford to pay the legally required wage of $11.17 an hour, but he figured he'd recruit homeless workers who would be happy to work for $5 an hour.

He had used homeless workers when he cleaned up the Our Daily Bread construction site at Cathedral and Franklin streets several years ago and has received good references from the contractor for whom he worked, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, ever since.

(Randy Shurr, who oversaw the Our Daily Bread job for Struever Bros., confirmed last week that he had employed Storm Troopers and that he had found the company "thorough and professional.")

"I am a good Samaritan. I want to help people who are really in need of income," Mr. London said.

But the job, which started in April, turned sour by May, as his labor costs climbed beyond what he could pay.

'They were excellent'

Although some workers, such as Mr. Rhodes, were conscientious, little work got done unless he was there to supervise, Mr. London said. Mr. London said he spent little time at the site because he was busy borrowing money and buying supplies.

Mr. Rhodes and a few others "deserve every dollar. They were excellent," he said.

"But a lot of the men did a poor job and left very early."

Mr. London kept hiring workers and promising to find some way to pay them because "I wanted to honor the contract [with Triangle]. That's me. Put my word on something, and that's better than a credit card."

Mr. London said he dropped out of sight because he was so depressed about his troubles at the Merrick job. "This has taken a toll on me. . . . I was actually contemplating giving up."

Although he admitted that he erred in cutting his bid too low, and in supervising his workers poorly, he blames Triangle for the fiasco.

Triangle executives drove him down from his original bid of $22,000 to a price they should have known was below his costs, he charged, and then were slow to pay his invoices.

Payment promised

Noting that his telephone had been turned off for nonpayment, and pointing to his surroundings, -- including one room that contained only a clothesline -- Mr. London said he borrowed $5,000 to finance the job and now can't repay it.

"I think I got suckered," he said.

But Triangle's owner, Jack Leone, reached on Friday while on vacation in Colorado, vehemently denied that the contractor was responsible for Mr. London's treatment of his workers, and said he would make sure the workers were paid soon -- probably by Thursday.

Triangle checked Mr. London's references, which were good, and accepted his bid, which was several hundred dollars below the next-lowest offer, Mr. Leone said.

The difference was so slight that it didn't serve as a danger signal, Mr. Leone said.

Triangle canceled its contract with Storm Troopers in June after learning from the state that workers were going unpaid.

Maryland law holds general contractors responsible for the payment of all workers at state jobs.

As a result, Mr. Leone said, he is ending up paying three times for the cleaning of the Merrick building -- the approximately $5,000 already paid to Mr. London, the $19,000 in wages owed to the Storm Trooper workers and additional money for the remaining cleaning.

Harvey Epstein, a Baltimore lawyer who is handling Triangle's wage negotiations in Mr. Leone's absence, said Triangle hasn't cut paychecks to Storm Trooper workers yet because the company only received verification of the workers' claims Thursday.

"Additional people and additional hours were surfacing," Mr. Epstein said. "We are not going to be extorted and throw money at people.

"We will pay, but we wanted some verification. . . . I can't give my client's money away," Mr. Epstein said.

"The idea of homeless people being taken advantage of -- we are very upset about it. Any decent person would be upset about it," Mr. Epstein said.

Going after contractor

Richard Avallone, chief of the five-person agency that enforces the law requiring state contractors to pay the "prevailing wage," said last week that one of his investigators has spent much of the last six weeks checking out the workers' claims.

The investigation was difficult because many of the homeless workers didn't keep records, he said. And the Division of Labor and Industry investigator couldn't find Mr. London for much of the last two months.

Mr. Avallone and the investigator found Mr. London at his home Thursday morning, and as a result were finally able to clarify who worked at the job, and how many hours each person worked, he said.

As a result of the meeting, the investigators decided they would likely not collect much money from Mr. London, and so would insist that the general contractor pay the wages owed.

Mr. Avallone said that although violators of the prevailing-wage law can be fined, he didn't think the state would pursue Mr. London because there was little chance of collecting any fine.

Until Thursday, Mr. Avallone said, Triangle had refused the state's settlement offers, insisting on proof of the workers' hours before cutting paychecks.

"Triangle was trying to low-ball it as much as possible," Mr. Avallone said.

Meanwhile, the state's Department of General Services, which oversees all state construction jobs, is upset with what it considers poor management and supervision on Triangle's part.

As a result, it has threatened to bar the company from bidding on future state jobs.

Further, in a letter to Triangle dated July 27, state procurement officer William E. Culen noted that the building was supposed to have been ready for occupation several months ago.

He warned that if the interior is not completed by today (July 31), and the exterior is not finished by Aug. 15, the department will consider canceling Triangle's contract and hiring another builder finish the job -- at Triangle's expense.

For his part, Mr. Leone says Triangle has not made any money on the Merrick job because of changes ordered by the state. And, he said, he plans to sue the state for as much as $700,000.

"We have been working for the state for 25 years with no problems until this project came along," he said, charging that the delays were caused by "the state's inability to get its act together."

Business lesson

The workers -- most of whom still live in shelters, and have to borrow the cash to buy even a snow cone -- are torn between cynicism about the promises of pay, and dreams of what they'll do with the money, if they get it.

Those interviewed by The Sun insist they did not exaggerate their hours, and only want to be treated as honestly as they treated Mr. London.

"I didn't beef up my hours and say I got a million hours. I got 44 hours and I want to be paid for 44 hours," said Winston Scott. "I've got no problem with working. I just want to get paid when I work."

"People think the homeless don't want to work," said Lance Davis, 34, who is living in a shelter.

"But we did a great job. I've lost all trust," he said. His 2 1/2 weeks of unpaid work at Storm Troopers isn't making it any easier to find a job, he said. "What will I use as a recommendation? Buddy?"

For many, the three months cleaning up the Merrick School of Business turned into a powerful lesson in business and economics -- but not one the professors are likely to emphasize when classes start later this summer.

"We talked about it all the time," Mr. Rhodes said. "The school of unethical business."

Nevertheless, Mr. Rhodes can't help dreaming of what he'll do when, or if, he collects his pay: "I'd like to get me a place to get away from here. . . . I'd like to help my family."

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