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Lawsuit by Washington AG Against GEO Group for Wage Violations Proceeds, Granted Class-Action Status

by Christopher Zoukis

In December 2017, a federal judge denied a motion by GEO Group, the private operator of the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington, to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the state’s Attorney General, Bob Ferguson. The suit alleges that GEO violated the state’s minimum wage law by paying NWDC detainees just $1.00 per day for their labor at the facility. Washington’s minimum wage is currently $11.50 per hour.

GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, Florida, provides detention services at NWDC under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The company had requested that the court either add ICE as a co-defendant or dismiss the case. The court rejected both options.

“This is an important step toward holding this multibillion dollar company accountable for exploiting its detainee workers in Washington by not following our minimum wage laws,” Ferguson stated.

With 141 prisons and detention centers in operation worldwide, GEO’s gross revenue exceeded $2.26 billion in 2017. It has owned the 1,575-bed NWDC since 2005, operating it for ICE under a contract valued at $57 million annually. The facility houses immigrant detainees awaiting resolution of deportation cases, which are civil rather than criminal matters.

Complaints about low pay and poor living conditions were the focus of a hunger and work strike staged by 100 detainees in February 2018, according to NWDC Resistance. The grassroots group said the action also protested unreasonable searches of detainees and the use of solitary confinement as retaliation.

Paying very low wages to prisoners is common in the U.S. justice system. But NWDC detainees are not serving sentences for any criminal convictions. The captive labor force, which nominally serves in a volunteer capacity, receives the $1.00 daily wage as an honorarium. Yet the detainees provide much of the non-security manpower needed to keep NWDC operational, including meal preparation, laundry and custodial services.

Attorney General Ferguson filed the lawsuit in September 2017, accusing GEO Group of unjustly enriching itself by paying detainees less than minimum wage in violation of Washington state law. That law exempts “[a]ny resident, inmate, or patient of a state, county, or municipal correctional, detention, treatment or rehabilitative institution.” But Ferguson argued it doesn’t apply to NWDC, which is not a jail, prison or involved in the criminal justice system. The state is seeking to recover excess profits GEO made as a result – potentially millions of dollars.

The company argued that Washington’s minimum wage law is superseded by federal statute, which sanctions any employer who knowingly hires someone who entered the country illegally. By requiring the firm to treat NWDC detainees as employees, the court would be forcing it into a position subject to sanctions – which, it said, is the exclusive privilege of the federal government and cannot be imposed by the state.

State Assistant Attorney General Marsha Chien based her argument in part on ICE’s contract, which specifically prohibits GEO Group from using detainees “to perform the responsibilities or duties of an employee of the contractor.” By breaching that provision, the company also was depriving local residents of jobs, she said. Moreover, keeping a lid on labor costs at prisons may benefit state taxpayers, but since NWDC is not a prison, the only benefit from its low wages paid to detainees accrues to GEO. In allowing the case to proceed, the district court indicated it wanted to consider those arguments.

In March 2018, eighteen GOP congressmen sent a letter to then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, urging the Department of Justice (DOJ) to intervene in the case on behalf of GEO Group. The Republican representatives, each of whom receives an annual salary of $174,000, argued that paying “alien detainees” more than $1.00 a day in wages would “drain the federal government of limited taxpayer resources.”

There was no indication whether Sessions received the letter. After it was publicized, GEO issued a statement emphasizing that the wage rate was set by ICE, not by the company.

The district court denied another motion to dismiss filed by GEO Group on April 26, 2018. Then, in August, the court denied a request by GEO to depose Ferguson, arguing he had ignored the low wages paid to NWDC detainees after his 2012 election to Attorney General, bringing the lawsuit only after crackdowns on illegal immigration under the Trump administration raised the ire of political progressives.

Rejecting GEO’s request, the district court noted that a party to a lawsuit is forbidden from deposing another party’s attorney except in “extraordinary circumstances.”

That same month, the court also granted class-action status in the suit on behalf of all NWDC detainees who “volunteer” to work for $1.00 a day. A similar complaint against GEO Group for paying low wages to ICE detainees in Colorado was granted class-action status in February 2018. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.38].

The Washington case remains pending, with a trial date set for June 17, 2019. See: State of Washington v. The GEO Group, Inc., U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 3:17-cv-05806-RJB. 

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Related legal case

State of Washington v. The GEO Group, Inc.