Sept. 20, 2017
AG Ferguson sues operator of the Northwest Detention Center for wage violations
Multi-billion dollar company pays detainees in snacks or $1 per day for labor
TACOMA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced a lawsuit against The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO), the second-largest private prison provider in the country, for not paying its workers the minimum wage, netting the company millions in ill-gotten profits. The state’s lawsuit asks the court to order the company to give up these profits.
GEO uses immigration detainee labor to perform virtually all non-security functions at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), the only private detention facility in the state. Since at least 2005, GEO has paid thousands of detainee workers $1 per day or, in some instances, snacks and extra food for labor that is necessary to keep NWDC operational. Washington’s minimum wage is $11 per hour.
“A multi-billion dollar corporation is trying to get away with paying its workers $1 per day,” Ferguson said. “That shouldn’t happen in America, and I will not tolerate it happening in Washington. For-profit companies cannot exploit Washington workers.”
“The bottom line is that a fair wage should be paid for a day of work,” said Joel Sacks, director of the state Department of Labor and Industries, which regulates wage standards in Washington state.
The lawsuit, filed today in Pierce County Superior Court, is believed to be the first of its kind brought by a state Attorney General. The state has two claims against GEO.
First, the lawsuit accuses GEO of violating Washington’s minimum wage laws. These laws are broadly written and meant to protect as many workers as possible. RCW 49.46.010(k) exempts the following from protections from Washington’s minimum wage laws: “Any resident, inmate, or patient of a state, county, or municipal correctional, detention, treatment or rehabilitative institution.”
There are no exceptions for private, for-profit facilities like NWDC. In contrast with a jail or prison, which house people involved in the criminal justice system and are operated by state or local governments, detainees at NWDC are held in a private, for-profit facility pending civil immigration proceedings.
Second, Ferguson also argues that GEO unjustly enriched itself, meaning it profited by its illegal actions exploiting its workers.
NWDC has the capacity to house up to 1,575 immigrant detainees. Detainees perform most of the work necessary to run the facility except guarding detainees. This includes preparing and serving food, running the laundry services, performing facility maintenance, and cleaning common areas and restrooms. Detainees report that the general practice is that guards ask for detainee “volunteers” for work. If no one volunteers for certain work, guards will sometimes pick detainees to perform the work.
AGO investigators heard many stories from detainees about their concerns regarding work at NWDC. Detainees described working through the night buffing floors and painting walls in exchange for chips and candy. Detainees told investigators that if an officer asks a detainee to work on a special project later than the planned end of the shift, detainees are allowed to stop working but may not receive any pay for their work.
Detainees also reported that for some work, GEO does not provide appropriate working gear and that has caused detainees physical pain and discomfort. Detainees’ concerns about being paid $1 per day or being paid in snack food is one of several concerns that detainees raised during multiple hunger strikes in the past year.
Northwest Detention Center and GEO Group
Located on Tacoma’s Tideflats, Northwest Detention Center is the fourth-largest immigration detention center in the country. People are held at the facility while undergoing immigration proceedings, potentially facing deportation.
GEO has operated the facility for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since 2005. The Florida-based company has been in partnership with ICE since the 1980s, and in 2015, ICE renewed GEO’s contract for NWDC through 2025. At the time the contract was renewed, GEO projected NWDC would bring in $57 million in revenue every year at full capacity.
NWDC is one of 141 correctional and detention facilities operated by the company, which saw revenues exceeding $2 billion in 2016.
GEO has faced a variety of lawsuits, including a class action suit by current and former detainees at a Colorado facility alleging forced labor.
NWDC has faced its own controversies, including multiple hunger strikes by detainees over living conditions, access to medical care, and other problems at the facility. As many as 750 detainees reportedly participated in one hunger strike earlier this year.
Relief and next steps
Ferguson’s lawsuit asks the court to order GEO to comply with Washington’s minimum wage laws. The lawsuit also asks the court to order GEO to pay the state its costs and fees from bringing the lawsuit, and to give up the profits it made by underpaying its employees over many years. The exact amount will be determined as the lawsuit progresses, but is expected to be in the millions.
If the court grants this request, the Attorney General’s Office will likely ask the court to place any monetary award into a constructive trust or cy pres fund. This fund would be dedicated to supporting people detained in NWDC, as well as job seekers in the community surrounding the detention center who may have lost employment opportunities because of GEO’s practices.
The defendant will have 20 days from the date they are served to respond to the state’s complaint.
Assistant Attorneys General La Rond Baker and Marsha Chien are leading the case for the Attorney General’s Office.