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Private Employer Must Pay $841,000 Back Wages to 167 California Prisoners

( A San Diego California Superior Court judge ordered CMT Blues, a garment manufacturer, to pay 167 prisoners it had employed at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility state prison to pay $841,000 in back wages for the workers' underpaid overtime, late wages and for their unpaid 30 day training periods.

Robert Robinson, a 51 year old armed robber with four years left on his third prison term, took advantage of the new Joint Venture Prison Labor Initiative (Proposition 139, which authorized private contractors to set up shops within CA prisons and hire prisoners at the prevailing wage), to make enough money to be able to help support his wife and three children while he was incarcerated.
A former maintenance technician, Robinson was hired by CMT in September, 1997 when they offered positions as sewing machine mechanics, operators and fabric cutters. Although he was told that he would not be paid for his first 30 days (designated as a training period), he was to be paid every two weeks thereafter. Under Prop. 139, he knew that 20% of his wages would be sent to his family, 20% to a victims' relief fund, 20% to the prison to defray costs, 20% for taxes and 20% to him.

But soon it became apparent that things were not going as advertised. After no pay for his first 30 days, he noticed that his paychecks were late and did not reflect the overtime hours he was putting in. To add insult to injury, after seven months, his name no longer appeared on the duty roster. Others had been hired instead to begin the 30 day no-pay training" period process anew.

CMT's practices had been called into question in 1997 by prisoner employees Charles Ervin and Shearwood Fleming, who tried to alert San Diego news media that CMT was taking material imported from Honduras and sewing on Made in USA" labels. Ervin and Fleming were placed in ad seg and transferred, and the press' requests to interview them were refused. [See: PLN, July 1998.]
In August, 1999, Robinson joined 166 other prisoners and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, AFL-CIO, to form a plaintiff class. They sought $1.7 million in remedies for both back pay and for failing to pay the prevailing wage in the community.

In addition to awarding $841,000 in damages, the court issued an injunction against CMT to require them to pay a prevailing wage and to make timely payments. CMT, with $5 million in annual gross sales, was given two years to pay the judgment. Believing it had properly complied with its California Department of Corrections (CDC) contract, CMT sought arbitration to force CDC to pay the judgment. However, the court had dismissed a related taxpayer action brought by plaintiffs against CDC in May, 1997. As to the 30 day training period - part of CMT's contract with CDC - the court ruled that a minimum hourly wage was due under CA labor laws. CMT had already discontinued the unpaid training period - a free labor gimmick in late 1997.

CDC's assistant director of the Joint Ventures program, Noreen Blonien, had testified that she thought that federal law relieved the program from complying with state wage laws. Robert Berke, plaintiffs' attorney in Santa Monica, CA, said this was the first time a state court had interpreted CA wage provisions to apply directly to private businesses that employ prisoners. Berke said CMT simply got greedy, noting they were already receiving tax breaks and a 25% discount in their Workers' Compensation premium - in addition to the obvious free work space - as part of their incentive to become a Joint Venture contractor.

Joint Venture programs are alive and well in CDC today, with 12 companies and 306 employees statewide. Industries include an electronics manufacturer, a steel producer, a beer and wine vat manufacturer and a nursery.

Robinson, now on parole and working as a plumber (a trade he learned in prison), said he holds no grudge. While he looks forward to receiving his back wage settlement, he is happy being free and with his family. See: Ervin v. Ratelle, San Diego, CA Superior Court No. GIC 740832; San Francisco Daily Journal, Mar. 14, 2002. g

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Related legal case

Ervin v. Ratelle