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Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary to pay $21,336 in back wages after violations found

Published Nov. 16, 2012

INDIAN SHORES — The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary has agreed to pay nine employees a total of $21,336 in back wages after a federal investigation found it violated minimum wage and overtime laws.

Investigators from the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division concluded the sanctuary failed to pay some employees for several weeks, which resulted in minimum wage violations.

The agency also found that some employees were paid set salaries without taking into account the actual number of hours they worked. The result was that their pay fell below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Those employees also went unpaid for overtime hours they worked.

"Employers are legally obligated to pay for all hours worked, including overtime when employees work more than 40 hours in a week," said James Schmidt, district director of the division's Tampa District Office.

Sanctuary director Ralph Heath could not be reached for comment.

The sanctuary, which Heath, 67, founded in 1971, is supported by donations. Records filed with the IRS show it had total revenues of about $1.47 million and total expenses of about $1.44 million in 2010, the most recent figures available. It is unclear how many employees currently work there.

Since its founding, the sanctuary has grown into an avian rehabilitation center with emergency facilities, a surgical center, and indoor and outdoor rehabilitation areas. The sanctuary's website, seabirdsanctuary.com, says it takes in 30 to 50 injured birds daily.

But for all the successes, Heath has several times found himself the center of controversies that ranged from charges that he overstated the effect of cold weather on birds in a fundraising letter to questions about expenditures and money management.

In 2007, the sanctuary was forced to close for two days after it failed to pay workers' compensation insurance. Three years later, the sanctuary hit rough financial times caused in part by the recession and escalating costs. There was talk of drastically cutting back its services.

This year, the controversies seemed to mount.

The IRS filed three liens totaling about $187,700 for unpaid payroll taxes, according to county records. All remain unpaid, according to county records. The Labor Department began its investigation last month.

Former employees complained of poor fiscal management and said that they went unpaid and that health insurance was allowed to lapse with no notice.

It was also revealed that Heath personally benefited from property tax breaks he was not entitled to. The breaks, which totaled almost $1 million over 22 years, were the result of a glitch in the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office.

The property appraiser had mistakenly listed four beach parcels Heath owned as nontaxable because he had leased them to the sanctuary. But the land was not entitled to the exemption extended to nonprofits because Heath, and not the sanctuary, was the owner.

The mistake was discovered last year when Heath transferred most real estate to Seaside Land Investments LLC, a for-profit Texas corporation established by two of his sons. The county began charging property taxes to Seaside, which has appealed both that decision and the value the appraiser placed on the property.

Property appraiser Pam Dubov has said she will not ask Heath to pay the back taxes because the mistake was hers and not Heath's.

Heath conceded last month that the sanctuary is facing financial difficulties. Not only have employees and taxes gone unpaid, the sanctuary owes tens of thousands to the company that supplies food for the birds, he said. Heath said then that he wanted to move the sanctuary to a volunteer-based operation to cut back on personnel costs, the biggest expenditure.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Editor's note

This story has been changed to reflect the following clarification: The U.S. Department of Labor found that the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary failed to pay some of its employees the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Florida's minimum wage is $7.67 per hour. A story Friday was unclear on the difference.

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