By Christopher anderson
WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has ruled that Baltimore County does not have to pay back wages to 24 people who lived in county parks rent-free in exchange for taking care of the parks.
A divided panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday upheld a district court dismissal of the claim by 24 park caretakers. The lower court ruled that the agreement to work in exchange for free housing was a “reasonable agreement.”
The caretakers had sued in 1999, arguing that the county, as their employer, had violated federal and state minimum wage laws by not paying them for their work.
According to court documents, the county provided housing and water to couples who agreed to be continuously present in a park, clean and maintain the bathrooms and other park areas, and open and close park gates. Some of the caretakers had been living in parks as part of the program for more than 20 years.
Baltimore County officials discontinued the program in August 1999. According to court documents, county officials later leaned that, in most cases, one or both members of the park caretaker couples worked full-time outside of the parks, leaving the parks unattended in violation of their agreements.
The park caretakers sued, arguing that they should have been paid for their 24-hour availability, including additional pay for overtime.
Circuit Judge Karen J. Williams disagreed.
“In this case, the caretakers have failed to produce specific facts to overcome the presumption and support their assertion that they were `working’ . . . the entire time they were present in the park,” Williams wrote. “The rent- free accommodation compensated them well above the minimum wage for the work they performed.”
In his dissent, Circuit Judge Roger L. Gregory said that the case presented by Baltimore County left many questions of fact unanswered, and that a summary judgment against the park caretakers was unwarranted.
The ruling disappointed Floyd Beecher Brinson, 64, one of the litigants. He and his late wife, Norma, had been caretakers at Southwest Area Park in southern Baltimore County since 1991.
Being a park caretaker was hard work, Brinson said, describing the job as part handyman, part nurse, and part babysitter.
“I do get upset about the way they treated me and my wife,” he said. “I used to let the kids come out of the rain in the house. Many a time I’d be there until 9 or 10 at night waiting for the parents to pick them up.”
Since the county stopped using residential caretakers, Brinson said, the parks have deteriorated.
“They shut down the caretaker’s house in Chesterwood,” a park in Dundalk- Eastfield, he said. “You can see how the drunks are in there, the trash is in there, the bottles are in there, the dogs are in there.”
Despite his disappointment, Brinson is not sure if he wants to see any more legal action on the issue.
“My son-in-law said, `Just forget it. You know you’re not going to win,'” Brinson said.