The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating whether Maryland illegally underpaid state employees at multiple state institutions run by two separate state agencies.
The ongoing federal investigation expands on an earlier federal finding that Jessup Correctional Institution officials routinely altered officers’ timecards and shorted them nearly a half-million dollars in wages over a two-year period. At the time, officials with the union representing correctional officers alleged the timecard issues were widespread throughout the state prison system and not confined to the Jessup facility.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Philadelphia regional office acknowledged to The Baltimore Sun the existence of “an active investigation that relates to resolving similar concerns at additional state institutions” but declined to provide any additional information, including which facilities or state agencies were implicated in the probe or how many workers were potentially affected.
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was notified in February of a second federal “audit into alleged timekeeping issues,” according to Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the agency.
The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services also received a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Labor, a spokesman for that agency told The Sun last week, and is “currently gathering the necessary documents.”
The extent or the precise nature of the allegations that U.S. Department of Labor investigators are looking into remained unclear.
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said no other state agencies were being looked at as part of the probe.
“The issues raised have been addressed and the funding has been appropriated to ensure employees are properly compensated,” Ricci said.
The earlier investigation into timekeeping issues at Jessup Correctional Institution found that staff at the prison routinely had their timecards altered to pay them only through the end of their scheduled shifts instead of when workers actually clocked out, shaving off overtime pay for employees who were regularly required to stay late to deal with issues in the prison or wait for other staffers to relieve them.
Federal labor officials ruled in January that the state committed wage theft in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act by undercounting the hours prison employees worked and now owed hourly workers at Jessup Correctional $468,238.87 in unpaid wages between November 2018 and November 2020.
The Hogan administration included a $30 million line item in a supplementary budget request at the end of March for the corrections department to deal with “a projected shortfall for salary related expenses in the department, including costs related to a U.S. Department of Labor Audit.”
Vernarelli said some other unrelated payroll costs are included in the $30 million figure. But Vernarelli and other agency officials declined to specify how much is intended to cover back pay for affected workers, potential federal penalties or other expenses tied to the ongoing investigation.
Del. Tony Bridges, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the appropriations subcommittee overseeing the agency’s budget, said that although Hogan administration budget officials “did not delineate how much of [the] supplemental is related to the audit,” he was left with the understanding “that more than half of the $30 million deficiency is to remedy the audit finding.”
“The Department [of Public Safety and Correctional Services] is unable at this time to confirm the final amount that will be paid to employees following its internal audit and the Department of Labor audit,” said Lt. Latoya Gray, a corrections spokesperson. The corrections department “can only report that it continues to review its records, and work closely with the [Department of Labor] to identify whether any monies are owed, and to whom.”
Union officials contended in interviews with The Sun that they repeatedly tried to flag the timekeeping and wage theft issues over the course of several years to management at individual prisons as well as higher-up officials with the corrections department, but workers continued to be shorted hours on their paychecks.
“It’s something we have been complaining about for years,” said Sgt. Dorian Johnson, an officer at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore who serves as president of the union local that represents staff at most prisons and jails in the city.
Ricci and Gray both disputed that assertion.
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Johnson said a systemwide staffing shortage exacerbated the issue, since staff are routinely required to work past the end of their shifts. He added that the problem was fixed last summer, but management “never compensated us for our time” rounded off on past paychecks.
The problems appear to have prompted a systemwide August 2021 memo from Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Robert L. Green. It ordered that the “automatic rounding of shift assignments … will cease” and directed timekeepers to only “manually adjust” an employee’s records in the agency’s timekeeping system with the approval of “an authorized supervisor” and with an accompanying note explaining the reason for the changes.
“We would like to be compensated for our time that we actually worked and possibly receive damages for not being paid when we actually made [prior] complaints [over] not being paid,” Johnson said.
Patrick Moran, president of Council 3 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents correctional officers, called the timekeeping issues “blatant and obvious corruption” and contended the apparent alleged scope of the violations — stretching across multiple prisons and beyond a single agency — suggested “a concerted effort” to deprive workers of wages in order to cut costs in the budget.
“This is exactly why people have unions, so corrupt employers are held accountable,” Moran said. “This was a plan. This wasn’t some error. This happened over and over and over again. We expect them to be held accountable.”
Ricci, the Hogan spokesman, called those allegations “clearly unsubstantiated claims” and declined to respond to them.
“All of the characterizations by AFSCME representatives are strongly denied,” Gray said.