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Leather workers face another delay

August 29, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Garden State Tanning employees are entitled to receive unemployment pay for the week they were on strike in June, a lawyer for the Maryland Office of Unemployment Insurance said.

But the workers probably won't find out for sure if they are eligible for the money, let alone receive checks, for at least two more weeks, according to their lawyer and company officials.

Before making its final ruling, the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's Board of Appeals granted Garden State a deadline extension to respond to the unemployment agency's finding.

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"I just don't think it's fair making people wait for a decision. They've already been waiting long enough," said Bill Proctor of Hagerstown, who is representing 178 of the automotive leather manufacturer's 750 employees.

The workers have not gotten unemployment pay because of questions about their eligibility during the labor dispute between the company and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Workers, he said.

About 90 of those workers have been laid off for the past three months without unemployment pay. Some of those people have found jobs elsewhere, he said.

Others returned to work at Garden State in the weeks after the nine-day strike ended June 10.

Garden State President and CEO Mark D. Lecher said he was surprised at how long the process has taken.

"As we've said all along, we'll go along with what the state decides," he said. "We've got a lot of good, hard-working people at our Williamsport plant."

The state flagged the workers' unemployment claims because striking workers generally are disqualified from receiving unemployment pay.

That's not true in this case, unemployment insurance agency lawyer Michael F. Taylor said in an Aug. 13 filing to the appeals board.

In the filing, Taylor asked the board to grant unemployment pay for all the employees.

Even though the employees chose to go on strike, Taylor found that layoffs may have been imminent anyway.

The plant had 30 to 60 days of inventory on hand before the strike when it normally keeps a two-week supply, according to testimony at a June 30 hearing, Taylor wrote.

Human Resources Officer Charles Boyer testified that Garden State decided to shift work to its plants elsewhere not only because of the strike but also because of other business considerations, Taylor wrote.

Union President Bobby Colvin confirmed the inventory size.

"These statements suggest that work at the company did not stop because of the labor dispute, since inventory levels were already high (30 to 60 days) but may be more suggestive that layoffs may have been imminent at some point," he wrote.

Garden State has until Tuesday to respond to Taylor's findings.

Proctor said if he decides not to respond to Garden State's filing, a decision could come as early as Sept. 9.

Lecher said the company expects a decision by mid-September.

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