GEO may have to pay even more when a judge on Monday considers separate damages sought by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who filed another lawsuit on behalf of inmates held since 2005. Both lawsuits have were grouped together for the first phase of a trial, determining whether GEO was obligated to pay minimum wage.
Adam Berger, one of the attorneys representing the detainees in the private trial, said he and his colleagues asked for $13.7 million, but the jury decided the immigrants owed more. The prize is expected to be split among 10,000 people detained at the facility since 2014.
“Immigrants detained in GEO’s for-profit facilities are not criminals and should not be required to enrich the company’s bottom line,” Berger said in a statement. He added that if GEO appeals, no money will be distributed until this process is resolved.
GEO did not respond to a request for comment.
GEO argued that the detainees were not employees under Washington’s minimum wage law. Even if they were, the company said, it would be illegally discriminatory for Washington to demand that GEO pay them minimum wage — now $13.69 an hour — when the state does not pay the minimum wage. minimum wage to prisoners working in its own prisons or other detention centres.
The definition of “employee” in Washington’s minimum wage law is broad – it includes anyone authorized to work by an employer, regardless of immigration or legal work status. The law states that residents of a “state, county, or municipal” detention facility are not entitled to minimum wage for the work they perform.
The detention center, now known as the Northwest ICE Processing Center, did not fit this exemption because it is a private, for-profit facility, not a “state, county or municipal,” argued state and inmate attorneys.
The detention center houses people who are in custody as the federal government seeks to deport them or reviews their immigration status. It can hold up to 1,575 inmates, making it one of the largest immigration prisons in the country, although the population has been drastically reduced during the pandemic.
Similar lawsuits have been filed on behalf of immigration detainees in other states, including New Mexico, Colorado and California, seeking to force GEO and another large private detention company, CoreCivic, to pay the minimum wage to prisoners.