Wage office, closed in '91, misses Oct. opening date


More than one week after it was supposed to reopen, the state office that is charged with making sure employers pay promised wages to workers has yet to be restarted and will likely remain closed until early next month.

To the dismay of workers who have been waiting for help collecting wages owed them, state officials said they haven't yet hired the six-person office's first employee.

But they've offered the director's job to a candidate and hope the new director will start hiring inspectors soon.

"We are going to do the best we can," said Nancy Burkheimer, assistant secretary for the Department of Licensing and Regulation, which oversees the soon-to-be-reborn Division of Employment Standards.

The office was closed in 1991 as a result of state budget cuts.

Those assurances haven't eased the ire of some workers.

"I am very angry with them," said Lois Myers, who contends she is owed about $7,000 in back pay from the now-defunct M. P. Moller Organ Co. of Hagerstown.

Ms. Myers said she called the state for help in collecting her back wages in July, but was told that because of budget cuts, no one in the state government enforced wage laws.

"Where is the workers' rights?" Ms. Myers asked. "You hear about prisoners' rights. We pay the politicians' salaries. Where are our rights?"

Ms. Burkheimer said she continues to receive calls asking for help from workers.

"If any office has shown a need, it is this office," she said.

When the General Assembly approved $200,000 to restart the office in April, licensing department officials had indicated that they could reopen for business in October.

But Ms. Burkheimer insisted that there was no set date for the reopening.

One reason it has taken the state so long to restart the office: legislative politics, she said.

Even as it approved enough money to add six employees to reopen the office, the General Assembly cut about $250,000 from the Licensing Department's overall budget, the assistant secretary said.

"We lost more than we gained," Ms. Burkheimer said, adding that the officials decided they wouldn't start a new program at the expense of cutting an existing one.

But the 430-employee department, which also oversees professional licensing boards and Maryland Occupational Safety and Health, made other cuts rather than allow the office to remain closed, she said.

And it has taken time to figure out just how the office will be run with just six employees, Ms. Burk- heimer explained.

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