Immigration detainees owe $ 17 million in back wages, jury says

A Washington state federal jury found that the operator of a for-profit detention center in Tacoma owed $ 17.3 million in back wages to ...


A Washington state federal jury found that the operator of a for-profit detention center in Tacoma owed $ 17.3 million in back wages to immigration detainees who were denied the minimum wage for the work they did there.

The jury reached this conclusion on Friday, two days after finding that the GEO Group violated Washington minimum wage laws by paying detained workers $ 1 a day, according to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who sued the company in 2017.

“This multi-billion dollar company has illegally exploited the people it holds to line its pockets,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Today’s victory sends a clear message: Washington will not tolerate companies that make money by violating the rights of the people.

Adam Berger, a lawyer representing current and former detainees in a class action lawsuit against GEO Group, said in an interview on Sunday that he was “proud to have represented these people and grateful to the jury for ensuring that justice be done in this case. “

GEO Group, which is based in Florida and reported more than $ 2 billion in sales, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on Sunday. The company argued in court that Washington paid prisoners in its prisons less than the state’s minimum wage, now $ 13.69 an hour, and that inmates were not employees under of state law.

The case, which was heard in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Wash., Involved inmates primarily from Mexico and Central America who had worked at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma since 2014.

More than 10,000 current and former inmates will be eligible to receive back wages, Berger said, with some expecting to receive less than $ 20 and others more than $ 30,000. The average price will be around $ 1,700, he said.

Mr Berger said some former detainees who have returned to their home countries may not receive money if they are difficult to locate. “But we will go to great lengths to try to find them or to spread the word so that they can contact us,” he said.

Inmates at the center, which was previously known as the North West Detention Center, often performed janitorial work, Berger said. They cleaned showers and toilets, wiped floors and sometimes prepared more than 4,000 meals a day for fellow inmates. The company did not employ barbers, Berger said, so inmates also cut each other’s hair.

Goodluck Nwauzor, a former inmate and plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement he worked for $ 1 a day cleaning showers in a living unit he shared with about 60 other men.

After testifying at the trial and hearing the jury’s decision, Mr Nwauzor, who was born in Nigeria and was granted asylum in 2017, said his heart was “filled with joy”.

This week the U.S. District Judge Robert bryan is expected to determine how much the GEO Group will have to pay the state for unjust enrichment through its work as underpaid inmates, according to Ferguson.

It was not clear whether the company would appeal the verdict, but Mr Berger said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if it did.

The result could have implications for other detention centers which use migrants as labor, rendering their treatment as “prisoners and criminals” unfair, said Erin Hatton, professor of sociology and prison labor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

“They cannot be treated as such, and that’s what the law says,” she said. “And I think it sends a powerful legal message, but it also sends a powerful cultural message.”

Although the facilities do not require them to work, Dr Hatton said, many inmates have no choice as they need the money to call friends and family, use the internet, pay for stamps or buy stamps. snacks.

“To say that they are not forced is not entirely correct – it just means that they are not forced at gunpoint,” she said. “They have a choice, but it is a choice not to be in communication with their family.”

Jacqueline Stevens, professor of political science and director of the Deportation Research Clinic at Northwestern University, said Sunday that “the minimum wage violations alleged in the Tacoma lawsuit hold true for many other facilities across the country.”

“I expect to see other similar claims against GEO and other for-profit prison companies based on similar facts,” said Dr Stevens.

Detainees at the Tacoma center were being held while their immigration status was being resolved, Berger said. Most had never been convicted of a crime, and of those who had, their criminal sentences had already been served, Berger said.

Immigration detainees, said Berger, “deserve fair pay for the work they do to keep the facilities running.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Immigration detainees owe $ 17 million in back wages, jury says
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