Hundreds of immigrant workers across Maryland each year come to the Latino advocacy group CASA, complaining about earned wages they say they were not paid. Hundreds of workers on state construction projects come to union officials each year, saying they aren't getting paid the prevailing wage.
Yet even as immigrant and labor groups say the need for labor law enforcement remains strong, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is proposing to scrap the two units designed to enforce those laws - a move some say might be illegal, and one they vow to fight.
"It's horrifying," said Kim Propeack, a lobbyist for CASA. "There's a real crisis in the state of Maryland with the nonpayment of wages."
Advocates for labor say that reductions have already weakened these agencies.
Now, administration officials say Ehrlich is proposing to eliminate one of those enforcement units as a way of, in effect, repealing the state's prevailing-wage law, which he opposes. That law requires that all construction workers on state public works projects are paid the prevailing rate in a region.
The other unit, which handles unpaid-wage claims, was eliminated from the proposed budget after a thorough review of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, administration officials say.
"These programs were deemed to be least critical to these issues and least central to the department's mission statement," said Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman.
Democratic leaders, however, say they will fight to restore the two units, which they say are essential to protecting employees.
"It's mean-spirited. It's bad government," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who is pushing this year for a bill to raise the minimum wage. "Most of these people are students, they're immigrants, they're single women, some with children, trying to make ends meet. And to eliminate the monitoring office ... is heartless. These are cuts that are not going to be allowed to take place."
"The idea of not enforcing the laws of the state of Maryland by taking away funding makes no sense," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.
The Employment Standards Service investigates complaints from workers who believe their employers owe them unpaid wages or violated other working conditions. The department has undergone a tumultuous history; it was eliminated in 1991 and reopened in 1995.
The prevailing-wage law unit is responsible for determining wage rates in different regions for state-funded public works projects. The unit enforces wage rates and working conditions on those projects.
Advocates say the units already were underfunded, with a combined budget of about $700,000 and 13 employees, down from a peak of 34 before 1991.
Because of a lack of funding, the Employment Standards Service refers many of its wage complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor. Still, in recent years it investigated more than 1,000 claims a year and in 2003 collected $653,219 in unpaid wages. The prevailing-wage office recovered $323,293 for employees in 2003.
Robert Lawson, commissioner of the Division of Labor and Industry, said he did not know how the department would handle future wage complaints or prevailing-wage studies.
"It's certainly a concern," he said. "If there are individuals out there that are not getting paid appropriately, they're certainly entitled to some type of recourse. We're not sure how to continue to make the prevailing-wage determination so that state construction projects can continue."
The Associated Builders and Contractors and Republican leaders hail the governor's elimination of the prevailing-wage enforcement unit, which they say does nothing more than drive up the cost of school construction projects.
"Prevailing-wage jobs are just such an inefficient way of running a project," said Michael Henderson, president of the Baltimore chapter of ABC.
Supporters of the enforcement units say eliminating them sends the wrong message to employers and represents a failure to protect the most vulnerable workers.
"You're eliminating one of the few tools in the state of Maryland that work for the employees," said Kenneth Reichard, former commissioner of the state's Division of Labor and Industry under then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Immigrant advocates say they rarely used the state's enforcement unit because it was largely ineffective. Instead, CASA regularly files claims in court or pursues criminal action through local state's attorneys, only occasionally filing claims with the federal or state labor departments.
Still, they say it's the state's responsibility to uphold state law. CASA of Maryland officials say they now receive about 500 unpaid-wage complaints a year.
Meanwhile, labor leaders are questioning the legality of dissolving an enforcement unit for a state law and say they are asking the state attorney general's office for an opinion.
"We try very hard to make the standards of our construction in Maryland safe, and we do that through the prevailing-wage laws," said Thomas Hayes, a business agent for Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 486. "For these companies to be able to come in and pay less than standard wages, everybody will suffer."
Warren G. Deschenaux, the General Assembly's top budget analyst, said that if the legislature were to decide against abolishing the prevailing-wage law, the state would need to enforce it, as well as any other state laws that govern working conditions in Maryland.
"We have asked the DLLR how they would do it," he said. "They have a legal responsibility to implement" the law. "The question is how they could do it within their constrained resources."