Judge Considers Advancing Prison Wage Case

TACOMA (CN) – At a motion hearing Monday, a federal judge seemed unlikely to dismiss two suits claiming for-profit GEO Group failed to pay federal immigration detainees Washington state’s minimum wage.

In September, Washington state sued GEO, one of the country’s largest operators of private prisons, for violating the state’s minimum wage laws. A detainee at GEO-run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, also filed a separate class action lawsuit in the Western District of Washington claiming GEO paid detained workers just $1 a day.

GEO’s attorney, Joan Mell, told U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan the cases should be dismissed because the Fair Labor Standards Act, which says detainees may be paid $1 a day for voluntary labor, preempts any state wage laws.

Mell said the government, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), made the decision about how much detainees could be paid.

“ICE and Congress get to decide, not the court,” Mell said.

She argued that GEO is not an employer and the detainees don’t have an employment contract.

“Isn’t that a fact issue?” Bryan replied.

He said the contract covering the detainees had “many of the hallmarks of employment.”

Mell countered that being in detention is not the same as being a regular employee.

“The question is whether these people are employees,” Bryan said. “I have to assume they are employees because if they’re not, there’s no preemption.”

But Mell claimed the Minimum Wage Act has never been applied to a detention facility.

Andrew Free, arguing on behalf of the class action’s lead plaintiff Chao Chen, said Bryan should deny the motion to dismiss and allow discovery because of the factual questions raised by the case.

And Marsha Chien with the Washington Attorney General’s office argued that the state wants to enforce its minimum wage act against GEO, a private employer.

“The state does not seek to challenge immigration policy,” she said.

Bryan said he expects to rule sometime next week on whether or not to dismiss the cases.

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