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Incarcerated workers at Baltimore County’s recycling facility could be entitled to minimum wage protections, 4th Circuit rules

May 21, 2024

Incarcerated workers at Baltimore County’s Materials Recycling Facility (“MRF”) could be entitled to minimum wage under state and federal labor laws, according to a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. This is good news for the workers, who were only paid $2-3 per hour for long hours spent in harsh conditions separating trash and recyclable material. The ruling also sets precedent that could benefit workers in similar situations. PJC attorneys Monisha Cherayil and Lucy Zhou and allies filed an amicus brief in the case in September 2023. The brief argued that the workers were entitled to minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), provided historical background on the longstanding motives of prison labor programs to generate a profit rather than to rehabilitate, and explained how the use of prison labor displaces non-incarcerated workers and results in unfair competition in commerce. The brief further argued that the FLSA is intended to protect workers, including those who are incarcerated, who lack the ability to bargain for favorable working conditions, and that paying these workers the minimum wage would serve the FLSA’s aims of deterring unfair competition and ensuring a basic living standard over time.

In ruling that the federal district court below erred in finding that the FLSA does not apply to these workers, the Fourth Circuit noted that because they worked off-site at the MRF, which is operated by the County Department of Public Works and not its Department of Corrections, the work was more similar to work release, which is subject to minimum wage and overtime laws, than to work done inside a jail. The Court also acknowledged that because the work here was performed outside prison walls, there was increased risk for unfair competition, not only with private businesses that provide similar services, but also for non-incarcerated workers whose jobs would be filled by underpaid incarcerated workers. Importantly, the Court further rejected the notion that evidence of any rehabilitative purpose of prison labor takes incarcerated workers outside of the protection of the FLSA. Instead, the Court held that the appropriate inquiry is whether the Department of Public Works’ primary purpose for using incarcerated workers at the MRF was for rehabilitation and job training.

The case now returns to the U.S. District Court to consider anew whether the FLSA applies to these workers in light of the Fourth Circuit’s clarification of the relevant legal standards.

Thank you to Legal Aid Justice Center, Mountain State Justice, and the National Employment Lawyers Association for signing on to the brief. The workers in Scott v. Baltimore County are represented by Hoffman Employment Law, LLC.