Detainees doing work at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma are paid only $1 per day or sometimes only in snacks, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the Washington state attorney general in Pierce County Superior Court.
Immigrants awaiting deportation at the center can do non-security work like preparing food or facility maintenance. Their payment goes to their commissary accounts.
According to state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, those workers should be paid the state's minimum wage, currently set at $11.11 per hour.
The detention center has been run by a private company, The GEO Group, on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement since 2005.
In the lawsuit, Ferguson argues that even though the Florida-based company has a contract with a federal agency, it's still bound by state laws, including the minimum wage law. Ferguson also notes that the detainees at the Northwest Detention Center are being held for civil immigration violations, not criminal offenses.
"You know what's happening at the detention facility is not right," Ferguson said. "Folks are paid a dollar a day for doing hard work."
There are exceptions to the minimum wage law. Inmates in government-run prisons or jails do not have to be paid the minimum wage. But Ferguson argues that the privately-run Northwest Detention Center doesn't qualify for that exception.
"GEO has to follow the law," Ferguson said. "And that's not happening here in a significant way."
The attorney general is asking the court to order that GEO provides monetary relief. It's unclear what form that would take.
In a statement The GEO Group said the company "strongly refutes the baseless and meritless allegations made in this lawsuit." GEO says its minimum wage rates and standards are set exclusively by the federal government.
The lawsuit comes after several hunger strikes at the detention center over issues including pay for work done by detainees. The suit is also similar to a class-action lawsuit filed against GEO earlier this year by detainees in Colorado.