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Jury: GEO Group owes immigrant detainees $17M in back pay

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 30, 2021

Associated Press

SEATTLE — A federal jury has determined that The GEO Group must pay nearly $17.3 million to immigration detainees who were paid $1 a day to perform tasks such as cooking and cleaning at the company’s for-profit detention center in Washington state.

Friday’s decision came two days after the same jury determined that the Florida-based company must pay its detainee workforce at the Tacoma facility minimum wage, the Seattle Times reported.

GEO may have to pay even more when a judge on Monday considers separate damages sought by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who had filed another lawsuit on behalf of detainees held since 2005. The two lawsuits were consolidated for the first phase of a trial, determining whether GEO was obligated to pay minimum wage.

Adam Berger, one of the attorneys representing detainees in the private lawsuit, said he and his colleagues had asked for $13.7 million, but the jury decided the immigrants were owed more. The award is expected to be divided among 10,000 people who were held at the facility since 2014.

“Immigrants held in GEO’s for-profit facilities are not criminals and should not be beholden to enriching the corporation’s bottom line,” Berger said in a statement. He added that if GEO appeals, no money will be distributed until that process is resolved.

GEO did not respond to a request for comment.

GEO maintained that the detainees were not employees under the Washington Minimum Wage Act. Even if they were, the company said, it would be unlawfully discriminatory for Washington to require GEO to pay them minimum wage — now $13.69 an hour — when the state doesn’t pay minimum wage to inmates who work at its own prisons or other detention facilities.

The definition of “employee” in Washington’s minimum wage law is broad — it includes anyone who is permitted to work by an employer, without regard to immigration or legal work status. The law says residents of “a state, county, or municipal” detention facility are not entitled to minimum wage for work they perform.

The detention center, now known as the Northwest ICE Processing Center, didn’t fit that exemption because it’s a private, for-profit facility, not a “state, county or municipal” one, attorneys for the state and for the detainees argued.

The detention center houses people who are in custody while the federal government seeks to deport them or reviews their immigration status. It can hold up to 1,575 detainees, making it one of the nation’s largest immigration jails, though the population has been drastically reduced during the pandemic.

Similar lawsuits have been brought on behalf of immigration detainees in other states, including New Mexico, Colorado and California, seeking to force GEO and another major private detention company, CoreCivic, to pay minimum wage to detainees there.

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