Eduardo Medina, New York Times, October 31, 2021
A federal jury in Washington State has found that the operator of a for-profit detention center in Tacoma owed $17.3 million in back pay to immigration detainees who were denied minimum wage for the work they performed there.
The jury reached that conclusion on Friday, two days after it found that the GEO Group violated Washington’s minimum wage laws by paying detainee workers $1 per day, according to Washington’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, who sued the company in 2017.
GEO Group, which is based in Florida and last year reported more than $2 billion in revenue, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on Sunday. The company argued in court filings that Washington pays prisoners in its correction facilities less than the state minimum wage, now $13.69 an hour, and that detainees were not employees under state law.
The case, which was heard in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Wash., focused on detainees who were mainly from Mexico and Central America and had worked at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma since 2014.
More than 10,000 current and former detainees will be eligible to receive the back pay, Mr. Berger said, with some expected to be awarded less than $20 and others more than $30,000. The average award will be about $1,700, he said.
This week, U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan is expected to determine how much the GEO Group will have to pay the state for unjust enrichment through its underpaid detainee labor, according to Mr. Ferguson.
It was not clear if the company would appeal the verdict, but Mr. Berger said he “would not be surprised” if it did.
The outcome could have implications for other detention centers that use migrants for labor, making their treatment as “prisoners and criminals” unjust, said Erin Hatton, a professor of sociology and prison labor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
“They can’t be treated as such, and that’s what the law is saying,” she said. “And I do think that sends a powerful legal message, but it also sends a powerful cultural message.”
While facilities don’t force them to work, Dr. Hatton said, many detainees see no choice because they need money to call friends and family, use the internet, pay for stamps or purchase snacks.