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Leather workers to get hearing

July 11, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

At least 178 Garden State Tanning employees who have been denied unemployment pay will get an administrative hearing in Hagerstown, their lawyer said Thursday.

The hearing tentatively was moved from July 15 in Baltimore to July 30 in Hagerstown, said William Proctor, a Hagerstown lawyer who has been hired by the union to represent the employees.

Most of the employees were denied unemployment after being laid off either before or after a recent strike, Proctor said.

Some employees have gone as long as six weeks without a paycheck, he said.

A small number, which Proctor estimated at 30, filed for unemployment for the week they were on strike, he said.

In order to receive unemployment pay, you must be out of work through no fault of your own, he said.

Proctor has said Garden State is challenging the unemployment claims, arguing that the employees are not eligible to receive checks because the layoffs were strike-related.

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But company officials disputed that characterization Thursday.

Vice President of Human Resources John O'Malley said the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation initially denied the claims, leading to the need for a hearing.

"Garden State has not taken any position in this matter," he said.

A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation was unable to explain the discrepancy Thursday.

Bobby Colvin, president of the local Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Workers, repeated his accusation last week that the company was retaliating against workers for going on strike last month.

"It's a shame," he said.

President and Chief Operating Officer Mark D. Lecher said the company is not being vindictive.

"That is not at all what we're trying to do. Our tanning facility is running very strong right now," he said.

Most employees who were laid off following the strike now have been called back to work, he said.

O'Malley said Garden State is concerned about the well-being of its employees.

When asked, O'Malley could not name anything the company has done to help employees who have gone for more than a month without a paycheck.

Proctor said the Garden State employees' claims are being expedited by the state.

Normally, contested claims for unemployment benefits that are associated with labor disputes are heard by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Appeals Board, Proctor said.

But to step up the process, the Appeals Board has appointed an attorney to hear the claims and render a decision, Proctor said.

Either the company or the employee can appeal the attorney's decision to the Appeals Board. A second appeal can be made to Washington County Circuit Court, he said.

During a series of meetings Thursday, Proctor said he got to talk to about 140 of the affected employees. He asked those who could not attend the meetings to call him at 301-745-3330.

Proctor said he is representing employees through the first phase of the process and his future involvement has not been determined.

About 750 employees at the company's two automotive leather manufacturing plants in Williamsport were on strike from June 1 through June 10 after labor talks broke down. A new three-year contract eventually was ratified.

After the strike ended, Garden State permanently moved 90 cutting department jobs to the company's Fleetwood, Pa., plant, and another 100 employees temporarily were laid off following the strike.

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