Homeless workers cheated out of $19,000 in wages

July 31, 1994|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

The owner of a janitorial service recruited about 30 workers from Baltimore's homeless shelters, put them to work on a state construction job and then disappeared without paying most of them even a penny.

Buddy London Jr., owner of a cleaning firm called Storm $H Troopers, stood outside the soup kitchen Our Daily Bread in April, promising homeless people $5 an hour cash -- less than half the required wage -- for cleaning up construction debris at a University of Baltimore building.

Maryland law requires all employers at state-funded construction jobs to pay workers a "prevailing wage," in this case $11.17 an hour.

In late June, Mr. London took his equipment from the still-unfinished $11.1 million Robert G. Merrick School of Business building, at the corner of Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue, and dropped out of sight. The workers, state officials and even Mr. London himself confirm that Storm Troopers owes the homeless men and women more than $19,000.

Although state wage law investigators finally located Mr. London Thursday, and won an agreement from Triangle Construction Co., the general contractor that hired him, to pay the wages this week, the homeless workers remain skeptical.

They've been hearing similar promises of future payment for months: from Mr. London, who says he's broke; from Triangle, which insisted on verification of the workers' claims; and from the underfunded state wage enforcement agency.

"Homeless people are unprotected," said Michael Rhodes, who is owed 10 weeks' wages. "I am very angry . . . upset and heartbroken."

The 46-year-old Baltimore native, who became homeless when he lost another janitorial job in March, was thrilled to be hired by Mr. London in April.

Jobs are hard to find, Mr. Rhodes said, and a steady income "meant I wouldn't have been living in the shelter."

After receiving a token payment for work in April, Mr. Rhodes and some others worked for another 10 weeks "because we kept on thinking and wishing and hoping he would pay us. It didn't sound right, but we didn't want to give up hope."

Their dreams of escape from the shelters were crushed in late June, however, when they showed up for work and discovered Mr. London and his equipment were gone.

Mr. London "has taken advantage of people" lacking the resources to fight back, Mr. Rhodes said.

Although Storm Troopers may be the single biggest case of unpaid homeless workers in Baltimore to date, their story is not unique. Unscrupulous employers have long taken advantage of homeless people, said Peter Sabonis, legal director of the Homeless Persons' Representation Project.

"Exploiting people who are vulnerable has always been a problem," Mr. Sabonis said.

Money-losing contract

But Mr. London insisted last week that he was trying to help, not exploit, the homeless workers. The soft-spoken 36-year-old said

he wanted to apologize to his workers.

Interviewed at his sparsely furnished Northwest Baltimore home Wednesday evening, Mr. London portrayed himself as a "good Samaritan" who wanted to help the homeless but got "suckered" into a money-losing contract with Triangle.

Mr. London, who said he's been cleaning up construction sites for five years, said he was hungry for the Merrick job because he had been without work all winter.

So he ended up cutting his bid, finally offering to clean the five-story, 115,000-square-foot building for $1,500 less than the next-lowest bid; that meant he'd get only about $10,000.

At that price, he said, he knew he couldn't afford to pay the legally required wage of $11.17 an hour, but he figured he'd recruit homeless workers who would be happy to work for $5 an hour.

He had used homeless workers when he cleaned up the Our Daily Bread construction site at Cathedral and Franklin streets several years ago and has received good references from the contractor for whom he worked, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, ever since.

(Randy Shurr, who oversaw the Our Daily Bread job for Struever Bros., confirmed last week that he had employed Storm Troopers and that he had found the company "thorough and professional.")

"I am a good Samaritan. I want to help people who are really in need of income," Mr. London said.

But the job, which started in April, turned sour by May, as his labor costs climbed beyond what he could pay.

'They were excellent'

Although some workers, such as Mr. Rhodes, were conscientious, little work got done unless he was there to supervise, Mr. London said. Mr. London said he spent little time at the site because he was busy borrowing money and buying supplies.

Mr. Rhodes and a few others "deserve every dollar. They were excellent," he said.

"But a lot of the men did a poor job and left very early."

Mr. London kept hiring workers and promising to find some way to pay them because "I wanted to honor the contract [with Triangle]. That's me. Put my word on something, and that's better than a credit card."

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