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Detainees to be paid minimum wage after WA Supreme Court ruling

Dec 22, 2023, 5:00 AM | Updated: 2:48 pm

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)...

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

On Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court ruled detainees being held at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma must be paid the state’s minimum wage for work they do while being incarcerated.

The court said not only are they detainees, they’re also “employees.”

The current state minimum wage is $15.74 an hour. The detainees were being paid $1 a day, a practice that has gone on for decades. For a dollar a day, detainees were doing what court documents called “essential tasks,” including laundry and cleaning.

More from Matt Markovich: Washington Supreme Court rules in favor of detained workers’ wage dispute

NWDC can hold nearly 1,600 people. Most people at the center are in administrative custody waiting for a determination of their immigration status.

It’s not a state prison, its privately run by GEO Group on a contract with the federal government.

The ruling upheld earlier court rulings stating GEO Group owes $17.3 million in back wages to the workers and an additional $5.9 million to the state in profits the company made on the backs of these “employees.”

But the ruling only applies to “privately run” detention facilities and not state prisons and county jails where, in some places in the country, you’re lucky if you get a dollar a day.

In 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union looked at what some 800,000 incarcerated people in state and federal prisons where being paid.

Only one state, Colorado, was paying the state minimum wage. The ACLU found the national average was 13 to 52 cents an hour.

More on formerly incarcerated individuals: King County awarded with $6M grant to help ex-cons re-enter workforce

And it found governments regularly take up to 80% to pay for room and board. And of course, there’s federal income tax.

In Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama, the wage for work is $0 per hour. As for Washington, inmates in state prisons are paid anywhere from 65 cents to $2.70 an hour.

House Bill 1024, introduced earlier this year in the state Legislature, would have raised that to the state’s minimum wage, but the bill never made it out of committee and became legislative roadkill.

This new Supreme Court ruling making detainees employees is sending a shot across the bow – in front of state lawmakers – that if state prison gives a job to an inmate, they may be employees.

Keep in mind that starting Jan. 1, 2024, the new state minimum wage will be $16.28 an hour – the highest state minimum wage in the country.

You can read more of Matt Markovich’s stories here. Follow Matt on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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