Groups call for better protection for workers

January 09, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Labor advocates are pushing for the state to beef up its oversight of companies that fail to pay their employees, one of several workers' rights issues that they say have been pushed aside in recent years.

A coalition of labor groups said yesterday that workers in low-wage industries are vulnerable to wage theft, in part because the state has been lax in enforcing existing laws. Immigrant workers are particularly at risk, they said.

"This is a crisis that has been building over a number of years, and to expect a quick fix is not realistic," said Eliza Leighton, an attorney with CASA of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group. "However, if there is a commitment to funding and government collaboration, certainly over next few years there could be improvements."

Among other initiatives, the coalition is calling on incoming Gov. Martin O'Malley to increase staffing to the Employment Standards Division of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which investigates unpaid-wage and child-labor complaints but has languished amid budget cuts.

The agency went on a one-year hiatus in 2005 when funding was cut by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - in effect repealing the state's prevailing-wage law, which he opposed. Funding has since been restored, but not to levels advocates say are sufficient to handle the volume of complaints.

The department's history has been tumultuous - it was eliminated in 1991 and defunct until 1995. Six staff members are budgeted for this year, down from a peak of 34 before 1991.

At that level, the department estimates it is capable of investigating 675 wage claims and collecting $225,000 in unpaid wages, CASA's report said. Hundreds of other complaints would likely have to be referred to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Advocates say they are heartened by O'Malley's comments in support of workers' rights. He attended a 2005 rally that drew 1,500 workers from across the state to call for better enforcement of wage laws. An O'Malley spokesman did not return a call for comment yesterday.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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