Posted on December 26, 2023

Washington High Court Says Detained Immigrant Workers Should Be Paid

Alanna Mayham, Courthouse News Service, December 21, 2023

Washington state’s highest court issued a unanimous opinion Thursday in favor of a class of immigrant detainees who sued the for-profit prison-runner GEO Group for paying them only $1 a day for work they performed.

The opinion stems from a Ninth Circuit hearing in 2022 where The GEO Group tried to persuade the panel it did not violate Washington state’s minimum wage law when paying immigrant detainees $1 a day for services required in its contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Florida-based corporation owns and operates the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington state. Since 2005, it has contracted with ICE to hold up to 1,575 noncitizen adults in custody awaiting review and determination on deportation.

GEO Group never paid its detained workers the state minimum wage — an hourly rate of $11 in 2017 and soon to be $16.28 in 2024 — leading a federal jury to award a class of 10,000 detainees $17.3 million in back pay and a federal judge to order GEO Group to pay Washington state $5.9 million for the use of detainee labor since 2005.

After GEO Group appealed, the Ninth Circuit panel certified three questions to the Washington Supreme Court.

“The first certified question asks us to determine the threshold issue of whether detained workers at the NWIPC, a private detention center, are ‘employees’ within the meaning of the MWA,” Justice James M. Johnson wrote for the unanimous court Thursday. “Our answer is yes.”

The second question involves whether the “government-institutions exemption” for Washington state’s Minimum Wage Act applies to working detainees in a private facility with a state contract. Under that exemption, the state defines an employee as any individual employed by an employer besides “any resident, inmate or patient of a state, county municipality correctional, detention, treatment or rehabilitative institution.”

“Our answer is no,” Johnson wrote, noting the central argument for both questions involves whether the Washington Legislature drafted the state’s minimum wage law to apply to individuals in detention or custody who are permitted to work. {snip}


Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson applauded the ruling, calling it “a major victory for Washington workers and basic human dignity.”

Chief Justice Steven C. González and Justices Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Barbara A. Madsen, Mary I. Yu, Susan Owens, Raquel Montoya-Lewis, Debra L. Stephens and G. Helen Whitener concurred.