Local Gov't Org Backs Baltimore In Incarceration Pay Fight

By Abby Wargo | November 29, 2023, 7:24 PM EST ·

An advocacy organization for local governments backed Baltimore County, Maryland, in its effort to convince the Fourth Circuit to uphold a ruling that people who performed work at a county recycling plant while incarcerated were not considered employees under federal law, telling the court that reversal would ultimately harm incarcerated people.

cells inside a jail facility

IMLA is urging the Fourth Circuit to uphold a ruling that the FLSA does not apply to incarcerated people. (Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images)

The International Municipal Lawyers Association urged the appellate court in an amicus brief Monday to uphold a Maryland district court's ruling that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not apply to incarcerated people, saying that applying the law to work detail programs would be too costly.

Instead of changing working conditions for incarcerated people, the IMLA said, reversing the district court's ruling would lessen local governments' flexibility in creating work programs and would cause such programs to shut down entirely, to the detriment of workers.

"IMLA's members, as counsel to local governments, understand the financial and legal concerns of their clients, as well as the fact that local governments need flexibility and certainty in forming work programs for incarcerated persons," according to the brief.

The group said that no court has ever ruled that the FLSA applies to prison labor programs operated by local government employers and that incarcerated people are not owed federal minimum wages because employment programs are rehabilitative in nature. A primary goal of incarceration is to rehabilitate the person, avoid recidivism, and prepare them to reenter society and support themselves; moreover, there is data that proves work programs' benefits, according to the brief.

"This court has looked to the goal of prison work programs in determining whether prison work is rehabilitative in nature rather than primarily pecuniary," the IMLA said.

Baltimore County also told the Fourth Circuit in a Nov. 20 brief that incarcerated workers' jobs at a materials recovery facility were for their benefit, making them ineligible to earn minimum wage under federal law.

Both the county and the IMLA said the district court correctly relied on the Fourth Circuit's 1993 decision in Harker v. State Use Industries  in its ruling in the county's favor. In Harker, the appeals court ruled that incarcerated workers are not entitled to the FLSA's minimum wage and overtime pay provisions if their work has a rehabilitative purpose and if receiving minimum wage wouldn't advance the aims of the federal law.

The IMLA said in its brief that reversing the lower court's ruling would not address prisons' working conditions or racial makeup, two concerns on which the appellants' supporters focused, as those issues are not under the FLSA's purview.

"Stretching the FLSA to cover the program at issue here, and similar single government employer programs, will be detrimental to such programs," the organization said.

It is the nature of the employer-employee relationship, rather than the location of the work, that is more important in determining whether the FLSA applies, the IMLA said, adding that the custodial relationship between incarcerated workers and the county has no merit under the FLSA.

Incarcerated workers urging the appeals court to reverse the district judge's decision had argued in their September brief that their work was not rehabilitative in nature, nor did it serve any "penological purpose." The workers earned $20 per day working at the materials recovery facility while they were in custody of a correctional facility, court records show.

A collective of civil rights, anti-poverty and employment law groups filed an amicus brief on the workers' behalf in September.

The IMLA is an advocate and resource for local government attorneys and has over 2,500 members, according to the brief. Its mission is to educate and advocate for the advancement of "responsible development of municipal law" by providing the collective viewpoint of local governments in court cases nationwide, records show.

Representatives of the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The IMLA is represented by Steven M. Klepper, Christopher C. Jeffries and B. Summer Hughes Niazy of Kramon & Graham PA.

The workers are represented by Howard Hoffman and Jordan Song En Liew of Hoffman Employment Law LLC.

Baltimore County is represented by Jeffrey Johnson and Kraig Long of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP.

The case is Scott et al. v. Baltimore County, Maryland, case number 23-1731, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

--Additional reporting by Caleb Drickey and Irene Spezzamonte. Editing by Roy LeBlanc.

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