Budget cuts scuttle wage-watchdog agency

December 23, 2005|By CHRISTOPHER STOLLAR

A state agency that has helped hundreds of workers recoup millions in lost wages has gone on a one-year hiatus after funding was cut, leaving employees with little recourse to pursue earnings claims against their employers.

Workers for employers that included strip clubs and nursing homes have recouped about $2.8 million by contacting Maryland's Employment Standards Service, a review of state labor data to 1998 showed. But that state agency's work ended July 1 because of budget cuts and may not resume until next summer, leaving thousands of Marylanders without a state or federal department to ensure companies pay them.

"It's unfortunate," said Elizabeth Williams, communications director for Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. "It was a benefit to employees and for employers knowing there was this agency in place. If they were thinking about maybe not walking the straight line, they thought twice because they knew we'd follow up on complaints."

But now, Maryland workers have three main options when a company fails to pay any compensation from salaries to vacation benefits: going to small-claims court; calling a nonprofit that helps employees; or hiring a private attorney - which may not be worth it if the amount in dispute is small.

While some cases since 1998 involved figures of $100,000 or more, thousands of claims were for $1,000 or less, according to a review of state records obtained by Capital News Service under the Maryland Public Information Act.

For many Marylanders, a few hundred dollars can make a big difference, according to Steve Smitson, director of legal services at CASA of Maryland, a community organization that counsels thousands of Central Americans who have fled wars and civil strife in their countries or sought better opportunities in the Washington area.

"While it may not be a significant case for a private attorney," Smitson said, "I've talked to a number of workers who have been evicted, not been able to pay rent and not had food on the table because they were not paid $350. ... I think closing of the office is a real loss."

But Smitson also said the agency lacked Spanish-speaking investigators, was problematic for undocumented workers and was too bureaucratic.

Christopher Stollar writes for Capital News Service.

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