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GEO Denied Summary Judgment in Suit Alleging Immigrants Are Employees Under Washington Labor Law

A Washington state federal district court held the GEO Group was not entitled to intergovernmental immunity in a lawsuit alleging it violates the Washington Minimum Wage Act (MWA) at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC).

The NWDC is a 1,575-bed immigrant detention center. Under the contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, GEO must provide a Voluntary Work Program. GEO pays the detained immigrants in that program $1 per day to perform various tasks and jobs. Some detainees are paid in “snack food such as chicken, potatoes chips, soda, and/or candy” in lieu of money.

The MWA set wages at $11 an hour on January 1, 2017. That rate has risen annually from the 2005 rate of $7.35 an hour. The suit, which was brought by the Washington Attorney General’s Office, alleged GEO has not only violated the MWA but it has unjustly enriched itself by paying $1 a day to its immigrant employees.

The district court noted in ruling on GEO’s motion for summary judgment that the nondiscrimination rule prohibits states from directly obstructing the activities of the federal government. It also found the MWA applies to all employers except “[a]ny resident, inmate, or patient of a state, county, or municipal correctional, detention, treatment or rehabilitative institution.”

The MWA, the court found, does not apply to residents of a private facility such as the NWDC.

That law does not regulate or place a duty upon the federal government, as it “(it)is(it) the generally applicable law.” Thus, GEO was not entitled to intergovernmental immunity. The court, in denying summary judgment, found there were open questions as to whether “Congress could decree detainees be compensated at a certain wage” and if the contract’s clause that GEO perform to “perform in accordance with the most recent version of constraints ... includ[ing] ... all applicable federal, state and local labor laws and codes” requires it to comply with the MWA.

The court rejected GEO’s argument that it should be treated the same as the federal government due to its contractual relationship. Trial was scheduled for July 1, 2019. See: Washington v. GEO Group, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 3:17-cv-05806.

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Related legal case

Washington v. GEO Group