A jury Friday awarded nearly $17.3 million to immigrants held since 2014 at a detention center in Tacoma who had been denied minimum wage while working for $1 a day, according to a lawyer representing detainees in a federal lawsuit.
The jury award in that lawsuit comes two days after the same jury found Florida-based The GEO Group, which runs the for-profit facility, violated Washington’s minimum wage law, in a precedent-setting decision.
GEO may have to pay even more when a judge considers separate damages sought by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who had filed another lawsuit on behalf of detainees held since 2005. The two suits were consolidated for the first phase of a trial, determining whether GEO was obligated to pay minimum wage.
Adam Berger, one of the attorneys representing detainees in the private lawsuit, said he and his colleagues had asked for $13.7 million, but the jury decided the immigrants were owed more.
If GEO appeals, no money will be distributed until that is resolved, Berger said.
“Immigrants held in GEO’s for-profit facilities are not criminals and should not be beholden to enriching the corporation’s bottom line,” Berger said in a statement.
“My heart is filled with joy,” added plaintiff Goodluck Nwauzor in the statement. During his eight-month detainment, Nwauzor cleaned showers for $1 a day, the statement said. He was granted asylum in 2017 and lawful permanent residency in 2018.
Other detainees did laundry, worked in the kitchen or cleaned other parts of the facility, now known as the Northwest ICE Processing Center. GEO relied on a captive workforce rather than hiring local people it would have had to pay more, plaintiffs charged.
GEO did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The award is to be divided among 10,000 people who were held at the facility.
“The trick is going to be locating some of these people,” Berger said in an interview. Some may have been deported or otherwise left the country. Others may just be hard to track down, given how long ago it was they were held at the detention center.
“But we are going to engage in an extensive outreach,” Berger said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan will hear arguments related to the state’s request for an award Monday, according to Berger.
GEO had argued that Washington’s minimum wage act didn’t apply to detainees, and pointed out that the state doesn’t pay its prisoners the minimum wage, now $13.69 an hour. The law says residents of “a state, county, or municipal” detention facility are not entitled to minimum wage for work they perform.
Lawyers for the state and plaintiffs said the detention center didn’t fit that exemption because it’s a private, for-profit facility, not a “state, county or municipal” one.
Washington appears to be the only state to have sued a private detention contractor for not paying minimum wage to immigration detainees. Similar lawsuits have been brought on behalf of immigration detainees in other states, including New Mexico, Colorado and California, seeking to force GEO and another major private detention company, CoreCivic, to pay minimum wage to detainees there.
Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.