The United States Department of Labor is examining whether Maryland unjustly underpaid state employees at a number of state institutions that were controlled by two different state agencies. The investigation is ongoing.
The continuing federal investigation builds on a previous federal finding that Jessup Correctional Institution managers habitually changed officers’ timecards and shorted them about half a million dollars in compensation over a two-year period, according to the Justice Department. Officials with the union that represents correctional guards claimed at the time that the problems with timecards were pervasive throughout the state prison system and were not limited to the Jessup institution.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Philadelphia regional office acknowledged to The Baltimore Sun the existence of “an active investigation that relates to resolving similar concerns at additional state institutions” but declined to provide any additional information, including which facilities or state agencies were implicated in the probe or how many workers were potentially affected.
According to Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was notified in February of a second federal “audit into alleged timekeeping issues.”
The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services also received a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Labor, a spokesman for that agency told The Sun last week, and is “currently gathering the necessary documents.”
The magnitude and specific nature of the charges that are being investigated by the United States Department of Labor remained a mystery on Wednesday.
According to Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, no other state agencies are being investigated as part of the investigation.
“The issues raised have been addressed and the funding has been appropriated to ensure employees are properly compensated,” Ricci said.
Prior investigations of state prisons
An earlier investigation into timekeeping issues at Jessup Correctional Institution discovered that staff members at the prison routinely had their timecards altered to pay them only through the end of their scheduled shifts rather than when they actually clocked out, resulting in the loss of overtime pay for employees who were regularly required to stay late to deal with issues in the prison or wait for other staff members to relieve them, according to the findings.
According to a January ruling by federal labor officials, the state had engaged in wage theft in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act by undercounting the number of hours prison employees worked. As a result, hourly workers at Jessup Correctional Facility were owed a total of $468,238.87 in unpaid wages between November 2018 and November 2020.
An additional $30 million line item was included in a supplementary budget request submitted by the Hogan administration at the end of March for the corrections department in order to deal with “a projected shortfall for salary related expenses in the department, including costs associated with a United States Department of Labor audit.”
Vernarelli stated that the $30 million number includes some other non-related salary costs in addition to his own. In the meantime, Vernarelli and other agency officials declined to say how much of the funds will be used to repay back pay for affected employees, potential federal penalties, and other expenses associated with the continuing inquiry.
Representative Tony Bridges (D-Baltimore) said that while budget officials from the Hogan administration “did not delineate how much of [the] supplemental is related to the audit,” he was left with the impression that “more than half of the $30 million deficiency is intended to correct the audit finding.”
At this time, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) is unable to confirm the exact amount that will be paid to employees following an internal audit and a Department of Labor audit, according to Lt. Latoya Gray, a correctional spokesman. The corrections department “can only report that it continues to review its records, and work closely with the [Department of Labor] to identify whether any monies are owed, and to whom.”
During interviews with The Sun, union officials claimed that they had repeatedly attempted to bring attention to the timekeeping and wage theft issues over the course of several years to the attention of management at individual prisons as well as higher-up officials with the corrections department, but that workers continued to be paid for time that had not been worked.
For years, Sgt. Dorian Johnson, an officer at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore who also serves as president of the union local that represents staff at the majority of the city’s prisons and jails, has expressed dissatisfaction with the situation. “It’s something we have been complaining about for years,” he said.
Ricci and Gray, on the other hand, strongly disagreed with the assertion.
Staffing shortages throughout the system, according to Johnson, have aggravated the situation, as employees are often compelled to work past the end of their shifts. He added that the problem was fixed last summer, but management “never compensated us for our time” rounded off on past paychecks.
The concerns appear to have forced Secretary Robert L. Green of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to issue a systemwide memo in August 2021 regarding the issues. It urged timekeepers to only “manually adjust” an employee’s records in the agency’s timekeeping system with the agreement of “an authorized supervisor” and an accompanying letter explaining the cause for the modifications.
“We would like to be compensated for our time that we actually worked and possibly receive damages for not being paid when we actually made [prior] complaints [over] not being paid,” Johnson said.
AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran, who represents correctional officers in the union, called the timekeeping issues “blatant and obvious corruption.” He also claimed that the apparent scope of the alleged violations — spanning multiple prisons and beyond a single agency, he claimed — suggested “a concerted effort” to deprive workers of wages in order to reduce costs in the budget.
“This is exactly why people have unions, so corrupt employers are held accountable,” Moran said. “This was a plan. This wasn’t some error. This happened over and over and over again. We expect them to be held accountable.”
Ricci, a spokeswoman for Hogan, described the charges as “clearly unsubstantiated claims” and said the company would not respond to them.
“All of the characterizations by AFSCME representatives are strongly denied,” Gray said.
Source: Baltimore Sun