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Md. county jail detainees could be ‘employees’ who can earn minimum wage, appeals court rules

The Baltimore County jail work program’s primary purpose was making money, not offering rehabilitation to the detainees, the judges found


Photo/Kenneth K. Lam of Baltimore Sun via TNS

By Russell, Madeleine O’Neill
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Baltimore County jail detainees could be covered by state and federal labor laws, reversing a previous decision that said work program participants were not entitled to earn minimum wage.

A three-judge panel on the 4th U.S. Circuit of Appeals sent the detainees’ lawsuit back to a lower court, finding that Baltimore County’s main purpose in sending prisoners to work at its recycling plant was saving money, not rehabilitation.

“Today’s decision is a historic precedent-setting decision, which is not just a victory for these hardworking workers but for all U.S. workers whose wages may be impacted by the use of inmate labor,” said Howard B. Hoffman, the lawyer representing the detainees in their class-action lawsuit.

A Baltimore County spokesperson declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, which will now return to U.S. District Court in Baltimore for reconsideration.

U.S. District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher ruled in June that county jail detainees who were detailed to the plant were not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law that governs overtime and minimum wage for most U.S. workers.

Michael A. Scott, an Essex man who was briefly detained at the Baltimore County Detention Center, was the lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit.

Under the county jail’s voluntary work program, Scott and other workers were paid $20 for 10 to 12 hours per day of manual labor at the single-stream recycling plant run by the county’s Department of Public Works, according to the 2021 lawsuit.

The county also contracted with a temporary staffing agency to place people there who were paid minimum wage and overtime to perform the same work as detainees in the work program, according to Scott’s suit.

Scott worked at the plant from December 2019 to March 2020 while serving time for two misdemeanor theft and fourth-degree burglary charges. The county suspended the program in April 2020.

Wednesday’s ruling is the first time the 4th Circuit has decided whether prisoners who work off-site could be considered employees under the FLSA. The judges did not go so far as to find that Scott and the other detainees are covered employees but sided with them on several key issues.

Using inmate labor at the Cockeysville recycling plant offered a financial boon to the county, which sought to eliminate the use of temporary workers who would receive minimum wage and replace them with detainees, the 4th Circuit panel found.

The work involved sorting trash from recyclable material so the county could sell “bales” of recyclables to the highest bidders.

The detainees’ lawsuit claimed conditions at the plant were brutal. The facility became so cold in winter that some inmates resorted to grabbing discarded clothing off the conveyor belt that carried trash and recyclables, according to court documents.

A former shift supervisor testified as part of the lawsuit that he sometimes looked the other way when workers ate food scraps that came down the conveyer belt because he was concerned the detainees were not being adequately fed. The lawsuit claimed inmates received only one bologna sandwich per shift.

Gallagher threw out the suit in June, concluding that the work program had some rehabilitative purpose, even if the county also saved money by using cheap detainee labor.

The 4th Circuit panel ordered Gallagher to revisit her decision and reached a different conclusion. The work program’s primary purpose was making money, not offering rehabilitation to the detainees, the judges found.

Paying inmates less than minimum wage also gave the county an unfair business advantage, something the FLSA tries to avoid, Judge Toby Heytens wrote in the opinion. The county could pay incarcerated workers less that private employers doing the same work and could afford to offer cheaper recycling services as a result.

“The fact that the county also sorted recycling for two other counties and was trying to secure business from four more only confirms the potential competitive unfairness to private providers,” Heytens wrote.

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