Federal judge throws out lawsuit over wages for Md. jail inmates working at recycling center
Under the county jail’s voluntary work program, workers were paid $20 for 10 to 12 hours a day of manual labor at the single-stream recycling plant
By Cassidy Jensen
BALTIMORE — A federal judge dismissed a class action lawsuit by participants in a Baltimore County jail program who said the county violated wage laws by not paying them overtime or minimum wage for their work at a Cockeysville recycling plant.
Michael A. Scott, an Essex resident who served a sentence at the Baltimore County Detention Center from December 2019 to March 2020, initially filed a lawsuit in January 2021 in U.S. District Court, which ultimately became a class action.
U.S. District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher ruled last week that the workers detailed to the recycling plant are not employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law governing overtime and minimum wage for most U.S. workers.
Under the county jail’s voluntary work program, workers were paid $20 for 10 to 12 hours a day of manual labor at the single-stream recycling plant run by the county’s Department of Public Works, according to the lawsuit. Scott was serving a sentence at the jail for two misdemeanor charges of theft under $100 and fourth-degree burglary, according to court records.
The lawsuit said the county also used a temporary staffing agency at the plant, whose workers were paid minimum wage and overtime for the same work.
While courts have generally held that prisoners are not generally protected by the federal law, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has not ruled on off-site work, Gallagher wrote in an opinion last week. The Third Circuit found the law did apply in the case of child-support debtors in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, who worked at a privately-operated recycling center while incarcerated.
Gallagher wrote that the program at the Cockeysville plant served a rehabilitative purpose because it provided structure, work experience and pay, “albeit very little,” but also acknowledged that the county “operated the facility as a business and benefitted from using cheaper inmate labor.”
The recycling facility generated $41 million in revenue between January 2014 and December 2020, Gallagher’s opinion said, although the county contends that figure doesn’t include all costs.
Gallagher wrote that the work program more closely resembled work done inside prisons because although the county benefitted from cheap labor, that economic advantage ultimately flowed to the county and its jail rather than a private third-party employer.
While the lawsuit argued the plaintiffs needed to be paid minimum wage to buy needed items like toiletries and clothes to keep warm in the open-air recycling facility, Gallagher wrote that the federal wage law is not meant to address prisoners’ living conditions.
A former supervisor at the recycling plant said he “[looked] the other way” while workers from the jail took food off the conveyor belt to eat because the bologna sandwiches they were given were insufficient, according to court documents. The corrections department in some cases also failed to provide sufficient clothing, Gallagher wrote.
The plaintiffs plan to appeal the case to the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
“As sure as the sun rises, we’re going to appeal,” their attorney, Howard B. Hoffman, said Wednesday. “This is not a fight that is going to end swiftly.”
Hoffman questioned the rehabilitative value of the work program, which he said took workers away from substance-use recovery classes and other jail programming, and argued that paying sub-minimum wage gave the county an unfair advantage over private waste management companies.
“My practice concentrates on unpaid wages, not prison inmate rights, but this case has really opened my eyes to the plight and the conditions of inmates,” he said.
Baltimore County hired outside law firm Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough in 2021 to serve as co-counsel on the case.
“The county is satisfied with the court’s ruling, which speaks for itself,” said county spokesperson Erica Palmisano.
The jail’s work details at the recycling center stopped while the lawsuit was ongoing, Gallagher wrote. Palmisano said Wednesday no county inmates are working at the recycling plant now.