Private Prison May Have to Boost Detainees’ Wages

TACOMA, Wash. (CN) — Washington State can pursue claims that the private prison company GEO Group failed to pay federal immigration detainees the state’s minimum wage, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

GEO could not prove that the state’s minimum wage law as applied to detainee wages is preempted by federal law, and the state has a valid interest in pursuing the case, U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan ruled.

Washington sued GEO in September for violating the state’s minimum wage laws. GEO Group is one of the country’s largest operators of private prisons.

A detainee at GEO-run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma filed a separate class action in the Western District of Washington, claiming GEO paid detained workers just $1 a day.

Bryan refused to dismiss the detainee’s claim as well.

“Defendant has not overcome the presumption against preemption by showing congressional intent to displace state law as to detainee wages,” Bryan ruled. “Defendant has not shown that plaintiff lacks authority to proceed as parens patriae on behalf of Washington residents. The complaint states a claim upon which relief can be granted for both causes of action. Dismissal under equitable doctrines of laches and unclean hands is not warranted.”

GEO claimed that the Immigration Reform and Control Act preempts the state’s minimum wage law by preventing state and local governments from “imposing civil or criminal sanctions” upon those who employ unauthorized aliens.

Finding that GEO is an employer that failed to pay minimum wage would expose the company to damages and attorney fees, which are “sanctions,” GEO claimed.

Bryan disagreed.

“Even if, as defendant argues, the provisions of the Washington Minimum Wage Act are construed as ‘sanctions,’ they would not be imposed on account of employers hiring unauthorized aliens, but rather because of the failure to pay the prevailing minimum wage,” he wrote.

Congress has not specified any rate for detainee work since 1979, and GEO “has not shown that Congress intended to preempt state law regarding detainee wages.” Bryan added.

Bryan also refused to dismiss an unjust enrichment claim, saying the court needed more information to determine if detainees’ work is voluntary.

GEO said the voluntary work program requires detainees to sign a waiver affirming their voluntary participation.

But Bryan said: “Assuming that ‘involuntary’ must be alleged in the pleadings, the Court can infer that detainees’ participation was involuntary from the alleged circumstances, where detainees are housed at a private immigration detention center, defendant has compensated detainees at $1 per day since 2005, regardless of hours worked, and defendant has financially benefited from the work without the financial burden of paying the state minimum wage.”

Bryan is considering the state’s motion to remand to state court.

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