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Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary must pay $21,336 in back wages

MARK DOUGLAS News Channel 8
Published:   |   Updated: May 16, 2013 at 09:08 PM

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary has agreed to pay $21,336 in back wages to nine employees following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.

"Employers are legally obligated to pay for all hours worked," said James Schmidt, district director of the agency's Tampa office in a statement Thursday.

The Department of Labor says it determined the nonprofit bird rescue organization failed to pay some employees "for several work weeks" and did not pay overtime to others who worked more than 40 hours of week.

The sanctuary based in Indian Shores was founded by Ralph Heath 40 years ago. Heath still serves as the charity's president.

Heath said his charity has been suffering hard times lately due to the faltering economy.

He also blames "skyrocketing" prices for baitfish, which he feeds his birds, even though experts say baitfish are in record abundance and prices haven't changed.

A number of sanctuary workers have resigned in recent months after enduring long periods without pay, and blame poor management practices for the sanctuary's faltering finances.

The IRS has filed liens amounting to $187,000, for unpaid payroll taxes over the past two years.

Last year, during one stretch when employees were going without pay, worker Scott Patterson video recorded Heath dumping cash from sanctuary donation boxes into a red bucket.

Patterson told a News Channel 8 reporter he watched Heath take the money back to his beach house. He said it was a longstanding practice that was well known among sanctuary workers.

"I don't know why we didn't speak up," Patterson said. "We should have."

Heath's former housekeeper Barb Savin said she discovered shoeboxes full of cash and coins in one of Heath's closets when she worked there four years ago.

Bambi Foy, who said she lived upstairs in the sanctuary beach house six years ago when Heath was living downstairs wrote an open letter at the time alleging Heath was spending the donations he removed from boxes on himself.

"Every night he empties them," Foy wrote. "And then takes it to the house, puts it in his wallet and spends it on himself. I've been watching Ralph do this day after day after day for a year."

Foy ended her volunteer affiliation with the sanctuary after writing that letter and left the state.

Meanwhile, Heath said recently he is moving toward an all volunteer workforce to trim expenses and stabilize the sanctuary's finances. Heath said he is also selling assets not directly related to the bird rescue operation.

One of those items is the 65-foot pleasure yacht named Whisker that Heath said he acquired many years ago for marine research missions, according to sanctuary board member Jerry Alan.

The yacht once sported a hot tub on deck and according to financial reports filed with the IRS cost the sanctuary more than $1.25 million to purchase, refit and operate. The yacht fell into disrepair years ago. Alan said Heath now plans to sell it for scrap.

The labor department did not say in its statement Thursday when the sanctuary will pay its nine employees back wages, or which employees will receive a share of the money.

Former sanctuary worker Greg Slutzky said he's been told by a labor investigator handling the case that he is one of the employees who will receive a share of the money the sanctuary has agreed to pay for back wages but doesn't have any more details.

"I think it's wonderful. Times are tough and everybody needs every bit of money they're owed." Slutzky said, "I'm sure there's people who need it a lot more than me and I hope it comes through for them." (727) 431-3448

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