South Sound News

AG lawsuit: Immigrant detainees paid $1/day, snacks for work at detention center

TACOMA, Wash. — Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is suing a company that runs most functions at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center for wage violations against immigration detainees.

Ferguson says he is suing The GEO Group, Inc., a private prison provider, for not paying its workers the minimum wage, netting the company millions. The state’s lawsuit asks the court to order the company to give up the profits.

GEO uses immigration detainee labor to perform virtually all non-security functions at the private detention center.

“This includes preparing and serving food, running the laundry services, facility maintenance and cleaning common areas and restrooms,” Ferguson said at a news conference.

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For KIRO 7 News at 5 p.m., Graham Johnson explains the claims against GEO, what kind of work the detainees are doing and their working conditions.

The lawsuit says 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 the facility operating.

“People describe working through the night buffing floors and painting walls in exchange for chips and candy,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson’s suit alleges the company is violating Washington’s minimum wage law, which has no exemption for private prisons.

The minimum wage in Washington is currently $11 per hour.

“Let's be honest about what's going on,” Ferguson said. “GEO has a captive population of vulnerable individuals who cannot easily advocate for themselves. This corporation is exploiting those workers for their own profits.”

Ferguson says detainees told his investigators their work in the Tacoma center was mostly voluntary, although some people were afraid to say no when the guards asked for volunteers.

GEO is facing a class action lawsuit over conditions at another immigration facility in Colorado, where detainees allege they were forced into labor.

Following a request for an interview, GEO released the following statement:

GEO strongly refutes the baseless and meritless allegations made in this lawsuit, and we intend to vigorously defend our company against these claims. The volunteer work program at all federal immigration facilities as well as the minimum wage rates and standards associated with the program are set exclusively by the Federal government under mandated performance-based national detention standards, which were promulgated by the Obama Administration in 2011. All ICE facilities operated by GEO, including the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments that meet the non-penal, non-punitive needs of individuals in the care and custody of federal immigration authorities pursuant to the Federal government's national standards.