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Incarcerated workers at Baltimore County’s recycling facility are entitled to minimum wage protections, amicus brief argues

October 26, 2023

In Baltimore County’s Materials Recycling Facility, incarcerated workers spend long hours in harsh conditions separating trash and recyclable material for a scant $2-3 per hour. The County, in turn, reaps considerable profits in reliance on this virtually unpaid labor by selling bales of the recyclable material on the open market. This summer, Maryland’s federal district court rejected the workers’ claim for minimum wage and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) because the work was supposedly rehabilitative instead of profit-driven and was not intended to be covered by the FLSA. On an appeal of the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the Public Justice Center, Legal Aid Justice Center, Mountain State Justice, and the National Employment Lawyers Association filed an amicus brief arguing the workers are entitled to the FLSA’s wage protections.

Written by PJC attorneys Monisha Cherayil and Lucy Zhou, the amicus brief provides historical background to demonstrate that the purpose of prison labor programs has long been to generate a profit rather than to rehabilitate. The brief further argues that the FLSA is intended to protect workers, including those who are incarcerated, who lack the ability to bargain for favorable working conditions. Finally, the amicus brief argues that paying incarcerated workers the minimum wage would serve the FLSA’s aims of deterring unfair competition and ensuring that workers can maintain a basic living standard over time.

The dynamics described in the brief apply in full force to the County’s prison work program at its Materials Recycling Facility (MRF). While the County claims that the work incarcerated individuals perform is rehabilitative, such individuals in fact do not get any formal job training or supervision, receive no preference if they apply for a job at the MRF on release, and work such long hours that they have to miss activities like addiction counseling. The County’s MRF work program harms non-incarcerated workers as well: although MRF jobs are technically open to such workers, who earn minimum wage or more, Baltimore County tries to staff the facility with as many incarcerated individuals as possible to save money. Meanwhile, corporate recycling contractors cannot compete and have been shut out of the lucrative market for recyclables in Baltimore County, and potentially in the other jurisdictions where the MRF sells its product. As set forth in the amicus brief, the only way to avoid such an outcome – which contravenes the central purposes of the FLSA – is to pay the MRF’s incarcerated workforce federally-mandated wages.

The workers in Scott v. Baltimore County are represented by Hoffman Employment Law, LLC.