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.


Associated Press

Boeing bids farewell to an icon, delivers last 747 jumbo jet

SEATTLE (AP) — Boeing bids farewell to an icon on Tuesday: It’s delivering its final 747 jumbo jet. Since its first flight in 1969, the giant yet graceful 747 has served as a cargo plane, a commercial aircraft capable of carrying nearly 500 passengers, a transport for NASA’s space shuttles, and the Air Force One […]
24 hours ago
FILE - A worker loads boxes of goods from a truck outside a wholesale clothing mall in Beijing on T...
Associated Press

Chinese factory activity rebounds, adding to recovery signs

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese factory activity rebounded in January from three months of contraction, adding to signs the world’s second-largest economy might be recovering from a painful slump, an official survey showed Tuesday. A monthly purchasing managers’ index issued by the Chinese statistics agency and an industry group rose to 50.1 on a 100-point scale […]
24 hours ago
Visitors try out Samsung Electronics' Galaxy Book2 at its shop in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Jan....
Associated Press

Samsung’s profit plummets amid global economic woes

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Samsung Electronics said Tuesday its profit for the last quarter plummeted nearly 70% as a weak global economy depressed demand for its consumer electronics products and computer memory chips. The company’s operating profit of 4.3 trillion won ($3.5 billion) for the three months through December fell 69% from a year […]
24 hours ago
A trishaw driver wades through a crowded street at the frozen Houhai Lake in Beijing, Monday, Jan. ...
Associated Press

IMF upgrades outlook for the global economy in 2023

WASHINGTON (AP) — The outlook for the global economy is growing slightly brighter as China eases its zero-COVID policies and the world shows surprising resilience in the face of high inflation, elevated interest rates and Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. That’s the view of the International Monetary Fund, which now expects the world economy to […]
24 hours ago
Joe Garner, a truck driver and shop steward for the local 315 of the International Brotherhood of T...
Associated Press

Self-driving semis focus of California rules, legislation

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — As California regulators explore new rules to put self-driving semitrucks on the road, labor unions are rushing to the state Legislature to ask for a new law they say will protect their jobs — the start of a debate that could shape the future of the nation’s nearly $900 billion trucking […]
24 hours ago
FILE - Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra speaks during a news conference at the HH...
Associated Press

Feds expect to collect $4.7B in insurance fraud penalties

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration estimated Monday that it could collect as much as $4.7 billion from insurance companies with newer and tougher penalties for submitting improper charges on the taxpayers’ tab for Medicare Advantage care. Federal watchdogs have been sounding the alarm for years about questionable charges on the government’s private version of […]
24 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Pexels Photo)...

Sports gambling can be fun for adults, but it’s a dangerous game for children

While adults may find that sports gambling is a way to enhance the experience with more than just fandom on the line, it can be a dangerous proposition if children get involved in the activity.
Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet edges out cable for everyday use

In a world where technology drives so much of our daily lives, a lack of high-speed internet can be a major issue.
(Desert Institute for Spine Care photo)...

Why DISC is world renowned for back and neck pain treatments

Fifty percent of Americans and 90% of people at least 50 years old have some level of degenerative disc disease.
Trial to determine if GEO must pay detainees minimum wage