AG Ferguson Suing NW Detention Center Operator

AG Ferguson Suing NW Detention Center Operator”

(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 bottom line is that a fair wage should be paid for a day of work", says Joel Sacks, director of the state Department of Labor and Industries.

Ferguson says that because the detention center is a for-profit facility and not state run, they are not exempt from the state's minimum wage laws. The amount is expected to be millions of dollars, Ferguson said.

Washington state's Attorney General is suing the nation's second-largest private prison operator.

"If we don't allow people to be exploited in our state. everybody benefits", Barón said at the same press conference as Ferguson.

"GEO has a captive population of vulnerable individuals who can not easily advocate for themselves", Ferguson said. "They profited from their illegal actions exploiting workers".

GEO projected in 2015 that its Tacoma facility would take in $57 million in revenues annually at full capacity, around 1,575 people. Detainees perform "virtually all non-security functions" at the facility, the AG's press release says. A typical shift in the voluntary work program lasted approximately seven hours, according to the detainee work program policy-so if GEO had hired additional employees to do the work, it would have cost the company almost $76.30 per shift. This includes preparing and serving food, running the laundry services, performing facility maintenance, and cleaning common areas and restrooms.

The company in an emailed statement said it "refutes the baseless and meritless allegations made in this lawsuit, and we intend to vigorously defend our company against these claims". No matter how many hours they work, GEO pays them $1 per day or "in snack food such as chicken, potato chips, soda, and/or candy", the complaint alleges. Spokesman Pablo Paez said the Tacoma facility and all other Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers operated by GEO meet requirements "set exclusively by the Federal government under mandated performance-based national detention standards", including for the work program they claim is voluntary. That might mean that GEO plans to challenge the state's authority. Neither the federal government or ICE are a defendent in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit demands GEO Group begin paying Washington detainees in accordance with wage laws, and that it fork over the extra profits it earned by allegedly underpaying workers.

From a 2014 parade celebrating the Seahawks Super Bowl victory
From a 2014 parade celebrating the Seahawks Super Bowl victory. Emily Nokes

The 1,500-bed detention center, located on the Tacoma Tideflats, houses civil detainees who are awaiting immigration hearings or deportation.

GEO has appealed the class-action status granted to the Colorado lawsuit in April. "Give me a break", Ferguson said.

During a deposition, GEO's assistant business manager at Aurora testified that if there were no "voluntary workers" like Argueta [one of the plaintiffs], the company would need to bring in additional officers, paid at hourly wages set by rules in GEO's contract, to get the same work done. He said the attorney general was doing what the feds never have: holding GEO accountable.

Protesters in solidarity with an inmate hunger strike at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center.

ICE said it does not comment on pending litigation.

A group called the Northwest Detention Center Resistance called Ferguson's lawsuit a victory for hunger strikers.

The group also cited a new documentary about the facility it helped produce. "We have always been troubled by the conditions and really that this facility exists in the first place", Barón said.

But the city scaled back the ordinance amid questions over the ordinance's legality and arguments, including by some immigrant advocates, that arrested immigrants would just be sent to other facilities farther from their families.

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