Federal jury: GEO group immigrant inmates in Washington detention center must pay minimum wage


A federal jury has determined that the GEO group must pay a minimum wage – rather than a dollar a day – to immigration detainees who perform tasks such as cooking and cleaning at its for-profit detention center in l Washington State.

The verdict was in Tacoma U.S. District Court on Wednesday in a second trial on the matter. The first trial ended in June with a deadlocked jury.

“This multi-billion dollar company has illegally exploited people it detains to line its pockets,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in an emailed statement. “Today’s victory sends a clear message: Washington will not tolerate companies that make money by violating the rights of the people.

The jury will now consider how much is owed to the immigrant inmates who worked at the facility, and U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan will himself determine what the GEO Group owes Washington for its claim that society has unfairly gone. enriched.

Ferguson, a Democrat, sued the Florida-based GEO Group in 2017, claiming the company unfairly took advantage of the management of the Northwest Tacoma Detention Center – now known as the Mistreatment Center. northwest ice – on the backs of captive workers.

A separate lawsuit filed on behalf of the detainees was also filed that year, asking for back wages. The judge, who rejected several attempts by GEO to dismiss the lawsuits, consolidated the cases for trial.

GEO did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment, but is expected to appeal.

GEO argued that the inmates were not employees under Washington’s minimum wage law. Even if they were, the company said, it would be illegally discriminatory for Washington to demand that GEO pay them a minimum wage – now $ 13.69 an hour – while the state does not pay a wage. minimum to detainees who work in their own prisons or other detention centers. facilities.

The definition of “employee” in Washington’s minimum wage law is broad – it includes anyone authorized to work by an employer, regardless of immigration or legal work status. The law states that residents of a “state, county or municipality” detention center are not entitled to minimum wage for the work they do.

The detention center did not fit this exemption because it is a private for-profit facility, not a “state, county or municipal” facility, state attorneys argued. and inmates.

The Northwest Detention Center houses people in custody while the federal government seeks to deport them or revises their immigration status. It can hold up to 1,575 inmates, making it one of the largest immigration prisons in the country, although the population was significantly reduced during the pandemic.

In the first trial, GEO admitted that it could pay detainees more if it wished. In 2018, the company made $ 18.6 million in profit from the installation; it would have cost $ 3.4 million to pay the minimum wage to inmates.

Washington appears to be the only state to sue a private entrepreneur in custody for failing to pay minimum wage to immigration detainees. But similar lawsuits have been filed on behalf of immigration detainees in other states, including New Mexico, Colorado and California, seeking to force GEO and another large private detention company, CoreCivic, to pay. a minimum wage for prisoners.

A federal judge has dismissed the lawsuit filed by former inmates at the Cibola Detention Center in CoreCivic in New Mexico – a decision upheld by a federal appeals court in March.

“Those in preventive custody – like appellants – are not in an employer-employee relationship, but in an inmate-inmate relationship,” the panel wrote.

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