Trial to determine if GEO must pay detainees minimum wage

Jun 1, 2021, 6:09 PM | Updated: 6:55 pm

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2019, file photo, workers are shown in the kitchen of the U.S. Immigration...

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2019, file photo, workers are shown in the kitchen of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Tacoma, Wash., during a media tour. After years of litigation and pandemic-related delays, jury selection is underway in a trial to determine whether GEO Group must pay minimum wage to detainees at its immigration detention center in Washington state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

SEATTLE (AP) — After nearly four years of litigation and pandemic-related delays, a trial is underway to determine whether the GEO Group must pay minimum wage to detainees who perform cooking, cleaning and other tasks at its immigration detention center in Washington state.

Detainees are typically paid $1 per day when they work shifts in the Voluntary Work Program at the for-profit Northwest detention center in Tacoma. The state’s minimum wage is now $13.69 per hour.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson and some detainees filed separate lawsuits against GEO in 2017, arguing that the company’s contract with the federal government requires it to follow state and local laws — including Washington’s Minimum Wage Act — and that GEO, one of the nation’s largest private detention companies, unjustly profited by paying so little.

Tacoma-based U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan, who has rejected several attempts by GEO to dismiss the lawsuits, consolidated the cases for trial, which he is conducting via Zoom because of the pandemic. By mid-afternoon Tuesday, a jury of nine people had been chosen. Opening statements were expected Wednesday.

“These cases are not about whether the government’s contracting with private entities to operate detention facilities is a good or bad policy,” Bryan told potential jurors Tuesday morning. “These cases are also not about United States’ immigration policy or border issues.”

However, there are political undertones. In 2014, amid a hunger strike by detainees, immigrant rights activists tried to convince the governor’s office and the state Department of Labor and Industries that detainees should be paid minimum wage for work performed there.

After reviewing the matter, Labor and Industry officials determined that Washington didn’t have jurisdiction over the federal government’s detainees for purposes of wage issues, according to public records obtained by GEO and filed in the case.

In 2017, amid a flurry of lawsuits over the new Trump administration’s immigration policies, Ferguson reached a different conclusion, saying GEO was exploiting Washington residents.

The Democrat successfully sued President Donald Trump that year over Trump’s initial travel ban affecting seven Muslim-majority nations — one of more than 80 lawsuits Ferguson filed against the administration.

Trump’s Justice Department sought — and failed — to have Washington’s lawsuit against GEO lawsuit dismissed, calling it “an aggressive and legally unjustified effort by the state of Washington to interfere with federal immigration enforcement.”

GEO opened the detention center in 2005 and has expanded it twice. It houses people accused of civil immigration violations pending the resolution of their cases, including potential deportation. It can now hold 1,575 detainees, though because of pandemic-related concerns the population recently was about 250.

In a separate effort, the state is now trying to close it entirely. Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law passed by the the Democratic-led Legislature that would ban for-profit detention centers in Washington. GEO has sued to block it.

GEO insists it is immune from the minimum wage lawsuits by virtue of its relationship with the federal government. At any rate, the detainees are not “employees” entitled to minimum wage, it argues.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requires private detention facilities to operate work programs for detainees as a way to reduce their boredom and improve their morale, GEO argues. The company doesn’t have a choice but to offer the program even if the tasks assigned are redundant or if the detainee lacks skill — “inefficiencies that would never be tolerated in an employee-employer relationship,” GEO argued in a trial brief.

Further, the turnover is “astronomical,” the company’s lawyers argued: “GEO does not profit from the (Voluntary Work Program), but rather, is burdened with its implementation and supervision without any tangible return.”

Washington state, however, argues that the federal government requires detainees to be paid “at least” $1 per day; nothing prevents the company from paying more. And while the state’s minimum wage law exempts prisoners of government-owned detention facilities, it makes no such exemption for detainees at private ones.

“By relying on detainee labor, GEO avoided the cost of hiring non-detainee workers and unjustly pocketed the savings and resulting profits,” the attorney general’s office wrote in its trial brief.

Further, GEO deprived local residents of jobs they might otherwise have worked, the state says.

The trial could last several weeks. If the jury finds that the minimum wage law applies to GEO, a second phase will be held to determine damages. The detainee lawsuit is a class-action seeking back pay.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Lead water pipes pulled from underneath the street are seen in Newark, N.J., Oct. 21, 2021. (AP Pho...

Associated Press

Biden to require cities to replace harmful lead pipes within 10 years

The Biden administration has previously said it wants all of the nation's roughly 9 million lead pipes to be removed, and rapidly.

5 days ago

Facebook's Meta logo sign is seen at the company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on, Oct. 28, 2...

Associated Press

Meta shuts down thousands of fake Facebook accounts that were primed to polarize voters ahead of 2024

Meta said it removed 4789 Facebook accounts in China that targeted the United States before next year’s election.

5 days ago

A demonstrator in Tel Aviv holds a sign calling for a cease-fire in the Hamas-Israel war on Nov. 21...

Associated Press

Hamas releases a third group of hostages as part of truce, and says it will seek to extend the deal

The fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was back on track Sunday as the first American was released under a four-day truce.

9 days ago

Men look over the site of a deadly explosion at Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, Wednesday, Oct. 18, ...

Associated Press

New AP analysis of last month’s deadly Gaza hospital explosion rules out widely cited video

The Associated Press is publishing an updated visual analysis of the deadly Oct. 17 explosion at Gaza's Al-Ahli Hospital.

13 days ago

Peggy Simpson holds a photograph of law enforcement carrying Lee Harvey Oswald's gun through a hall...

Associated Press

JFK assassination remembered 60 years later by surviving witnesses to history, including AP reporter

Peggy Simpson is among the last surviving witnesses who are sharing their stories as the nation marks the 60th anniversary.

13 days ago

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, ...

Associated Press

Israeli Cabinet approves cease-fire with Hamas; deal includes release of 50 hostages

Israel’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved a cease-fire deal with the Hamas militant group that would bring a temporary halt to a devastating war.

14 days ago

Sponsored Articles

(KTAR News Graphic)...

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.

Follow @KTAR923...

The 2023 Diamondbacks are a good example to count on the underdog

The Arizona Diamondbacks made the World Series as a surprise. That they made the playoffs at all, got past the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Wild Card round, swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS and won two road games in Philadelphia to close out a full seven-game NLCS went against every expectation. Now, […]



Importance of AC maintenance after Arizona’s excruciating heat wave

An air conditioning unit in Phoenix is vital to living a comfortable life inside, away from triple-digit heat.

Trial to determine if GEO must pay detainees minimum wage