Lawsuit alleges multi-billion dollar corporation violates state minimum wage law by paying workers $1 per day
OLYMPIA — A federal judge today rejected an effort by the Northwest Detention Center’s operator, GEO Group, Inc. (GEO), to dismiss Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s lawsuit against the company for allegedly violating Washington’s minimum wage laws.
“The court is clear: GEO cannot avoid accountability by hiding behind its contract with ICE,” Ferguson said. “This is an important step toward holding this multi-billion dollar company accountable for exploiting its detainee workers in Washington by not following our minimum wage laws.”
GEO uses immigration detainee labor to perform virtually all non-security functions at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), the only private detention facility in the state. Since at least 2005, GEO has paid thousands of detainee workers $1 per day or, in some instances, snacks and extra food for labor that is necessary to keep NWDC operational. Washington’s minimum wage is $11.50 per hour.
The lawsuit accuses GEO of violating Washington’s minimum wage laws. These laws are broadly written and meant to protect as many workers as possible. RCW 49.46.010(k) exempts the following from protections from Washington’s minimum wage laws: “Any resident, inmate, or patient of a state, county, or municipal correctional, detention, treatment or rehabilitative institution.” `
There are no exceptions for private, for-profit facilities like NWDC. In contrast with a jail or prison, which house people involved in the criminal justice system and are operated by state or local governments, detainees at NWDC are held in a private, for-profit facility pending civil immigration proceedings.
Ferguson filed the lawsuit in September 2017, alleging that GEO’s practice violates Washington law by paying workers less than the minimum wage, and that GEO unjustly enriched itself by doing so.
Because it contracts with ICE to provide immigration detention services at NWDC, GEO asked the court to either bring ICE in as a party to the case, or dismiss the case entirely. The state pointed out GEO’s contract with ICE requires it to comply with state laws.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan rejected both options, and ruled that the lawsuit will proceed.
“Equity and good conscience … weigh in favor of the case proceeding, rather than its dismissal,” Judge Bryan wrote.
Judge Bryan also denied GEO’s motion because Ferguson’s lawsuit seeks to protect public rights guaranteed by Washington’s wage laws “on behalf of detainees, non-detainee residents of the state of Washington, and other businesses competing in the marketplace.”
The parties will continue with discovery and prepare the case for trial.
NWDC has the capacity to house up to 1,575 immigrant detainees. Detainees perform most of the work necessary to run the facility except guarding detainees. This includes preparing and serving food, running the laundry services, performing facility maintenance, and cleaning common areas and restrooms. Detainees report that the general practice is that guards ask for detainee “volunteers” for work. If no one volunteers for certain work, guards will sometimes pick detainees to perform the work.
AGO investigators heard many stories from detainees about their concerns regarding work at NWDC. Detainees described working through the night buffing floors and painting walls in exchange for chips and candy. Detainees told investigators that if an officer asks a detainee to work on a special project later than the planned end of the shift, detainees are allowed to stop working but may not receive any pay for their work.
Detainees also reported that for some work, GEO does not provide appropriate working gear and that has caused detainees physical pain and discomfort. Detainees’ concerns about being paid $1 per day or being paid in snack food is one of several concerns that detainees raised during multiple hunger strikes in the past year.
This is GEO’s second attempt to dismiss the state’s lawsuit. In December, Judge Bryan rejected GEO’s argument that federal law – including laws prohibiting the employment of undocumented workers – preempted, or trumped, Washington’s minimum wage and unjust enrichment claims.
Northwest Detention Center and GEO Group
Located on Tacoma's Tideflats, Northwest Detention Center is the fourth-largest immigration detention center in the country. People are held at the facility while undergoing immigration proceedings, potentially facing deportation.
GEO has operated the facility for ICE since 2005. The Florida-based company has been in partnership with ICE since the 1980s, and in 2015, ICE renewed GEO's contract for NWDC through 2025. At the time the contract was renewed, GEO projected NWDC would bring in $57 million in revenue every year at full capacity.
NWDC is one of 141 correctional and detention facilities operated by the company, which saw revenues exceeding $2 billion in 2016.
GEO has faced a variety of lawsuits, including a class action suit by current and former detainees at a Colorado facility alleging forced labor.
NWDC has faced its own controversies, including multiple hunger strikes by detainees over living conditions, access to medical care, and other problems at the facility. As many as 750 detainees reportedly participated in one hunger strike in 2017.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; email@example.com