Washington Supreme Court rules in favor of detained workers’ wage dispute

Dec 21, 2023, 11:48 AM

Tacoma Northwest Detention Center...

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Northwest Detention Center is pictured in Tacoma, Washington on February 26, 2017. / AFP / Jason Redmond (Photo credit should read JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

(Photo credit should read JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

In a significant ruling, the Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that detainees at an immigration detention facility in Tacoma must be paid the state’s minimum wage rather than the $1 a day that was previously paid.

The case revolved around the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC), where noncitizen adults held in administrative civil custody awaited immigration status reviews without facing criminal charges. The detainees, numbering up to 1,575, were managed by GEO Group under a federal contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

More on immigration: Washington’s center of gravity on immigration has shifted to the right

Under this arrangement, GEO was responsible for various detention services, including a Voluntary Work Program (VWP) aimed at providing detainees with work opportunities.

Detainees were found doing ‘essential services’ such as laundry and cleaning, for which they were paid a meager $1 per day, significantly lower than Washington’s minimum wage, which is currently $15.74 per hour.

Legal action ensued, with the State of Washington and a class of NWIPC detainees filing separate lawsuits against GEO in 2017, alleging violations of the Washington Minimum Wage Act (MWA).

After a jury trial, judgments favored the plaintiffs, awarding $17.3 million in back wages. Later, a federal judge ordered the company to pay an additional $5.9 million to the state, saying the amount represented the profits the GEO Group made paying detainees below minimum wage.

More on Tacoma’s immigration detention facility: Operator of Tacoma ICE detention center ordered to pay $23.2 million over unfair labor practices

Following an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Washington Supreme Court answered three critical questions.

Firstly, it affirmed that detained workers at NWIPC were considered “employees” under the MWA.

Secondly, it clarified that the MWA’s government-institutions exemption did not apply to work performed in a private detention facility like NWIPC. Lastly, the court ruled that a legal remedy for one party did not preclude equitable relief for another.

The court said its ruling applies only to privately run detention centers and not state-run prisons, which can continue to pay inmates less than minimum wage.

The court’s ruling marked a pivotal moment in ensuring fair compensation for labor, even within private detention facilities.

Starting Jan. 1, 2024, the state minimum wage will climb 3.4% to $16.28 per hour, making it the highest in the country.

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Washington Supreme Court rules in favor of detained workers’ wage dispute