TACOMA, Wash. — A federal judge is considering whether to throw out two lawsuits, including one by the state of Washington, that seek to force one of the nation’s largest privately run immigration detention centers to pay minimum wage, rather than $1 per day, for work done by detainees.
The GEO Group, the for-profit company that runs the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, is asking U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan to dismiss the cases, saying Washington doesn’t have authority to bring the lawsuit and that the state’s minimum wage law is overridden by Congress’ decision to set rates for work performed by detainees.
“This is detention. It’s not a competitive work environment,” GEO attorney Joan Mell told the judge during arguments Monday.
GEO pays detainees who volunteer for tasks such as janitorial, laundry or kitchen work $1 day. Washington’s minimum wage is $11 per hour.
The Washington Attorney General’s Office argued that it is entitled to enforce the minimum wage law against GEO just as it’s entitled to enforce it against any other company in Washington. While the state has determined that its own prisons don’t have to pay inmates minimum wage, it’s made no such determinations about private detention facilities, said assistant attorney general Marsha Chien.
Having the detainees perform that work so cheaply fills jobs that would otherwise go to local residents, Chien said. While keeping labor costs down at a state prison benefits taxpayers, keeping them down at the private detention center benefits only GEO, she said. The state wants GEO to give up the profits it has made by relying on detainee labor over the past decade — potentially millions of dollars.
“We care about the employment opportunities of those within our community,” Chien told the judge.
A separate lawsuit, brought by a former detainee named Chao Chen, seeks class-action status — and back pay — on behalf of all Northwest Detention Center detainees who have performed work in the past three years. The judge consolidated the cases for purposes of Monday’s arguments.
GEO has operated the 1,500 bed detention center since 2004 under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The company says Congress long ago determined that federal immigration detainees would be paid $1 per day for work performed — a rate Congress last expressly endorsed in 1978 — and that under its contract with ICE, it pays at least that much. The rate can’t be changed without ICE’s approval, it says.
Further, Mell argued, the workers volunteer for duty.
“What if all the detainees refused to do any work?” Bryan asked.
“Good,” Mell said. “They can sit there.”
Andrew Free, an attorney for Chen, disputed that, noting that detainees have been placed in solitary confinement for inciting work stoppages.
The state says GEO’s contract with ICE requires it to abide by state and local laws — and that “detainees shall not be used to perform the responsibilities or duties of an employee of the contractor.”
Some of the questions Bryan asked suggested he might not be ready to dismiss the cases, which were filed this year and remain in their early stages. He noted that several factual issues may remain to be determined, including whether the detainees should be considered employees.
“It seems to me they have many of the hallmarks of employment,” he told Mell.
Bryan said he expects to rule next week on whether to dismiss the cases.
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