Wage investigation office to reopen


April 14, 1994|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

For nearly three years, working Marylanders whose bosses stiffed them have had to lump it.

That's finally going to change.

Starting in October -- 5 1/2 months from now -- the state will again begin to enforce the law requiring employers to pay workers the wages they are due.

The budget just passed by the legislature includes a $200,000 appropriation to restart a mini-version of the wage and hour office of the Division of Labor and Industry. Though a far cry from the office's pre-budget-cut level of 32 employees, it will be enough to hire six clerks and investigators.

"I am really thrilled," says Henry Koellein, Maryland's commissioner of labor. The elimination of the office in the 1990-1991 recession "was a source of embarrassment to me," he said.

The embarrassment will continue through the summer, however.

Until October, Maryland workers who call the state for help in collecting their wages will continue to get the recording that's been playing since the office closed: "We are no longer able to assist you," a voice says.

The recording suggests the workers try suing their bosses on their own.

And that, say workers who've tried to get help, is a cruel joke.

Joe Bondar, a father of four who lives in Fallston, says he couldn't afford to take a pay cut, but also was afraid to fight back when his old employer started giving him reduced paychecks in 1992.

The company, Advanced Engineering Concepts Inc., told him that the recession was forcing it to give several employees partial wages, he said.

He didn't complain, at first, because a partial paycheck was better than no paycheck at all. But as the months dragged on, he fell behind on his mortgage, and increasingly aggressive bill collectors frightened his wife.

So Mr. Bondar decided to try to collect what he was owed, only to find out no one would help him.

Mr. Bondar says he has a file of 50 letters from local, state and federal officials offering their sympathy but saying there was nothing they could do. And when Mr. Bondar interviewed private attorneys to see if he could sue for the back wages, they all wanted several thousand dollars up front -- money he simply didn't have.

He finally found one attorney willing to take his case without an up-front payment, but Mr. Bondar is pessimistic. The lawsuit will take at least a year, his lawyer says.

And even if he wins a court judgment for the $27,000 he says he is owed, "All I will get is a piece of paper. Then I will try to collect."

Advanced Engineering officials declined to comment on the case.

State Sen. Janice Piccinini (D-Baltimore County), who persuaded the Schaefer administration to include the $200,000 in the budget, said that it was cases like Mr. Bondar's that led her to push for re-creation of the enforcement office.

Most employers pay their employees their promised wages, Ms. Piccinini says. But the state's elimination of enforcement has been a signal to unscrupulous employers.

"The word is out," Ms. Piccinini said. "Some employers are exploiting their employees" because they know no one will stop them. . . . It is outrageous."

"This is exactly why we need unions and government. There will always be those people who will exploit if there is no safeguard," she said.

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