Washington State Attorney General’s Office press release.
On Nov. 2 U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan ordered The GEO Group Inc. (GEO), the for-profit operator of the Northwest ICE Processing Center, to pay $5.9 million, the amount GEO unlawfully gained through the use of $1-per-day labor since 2005. The workers performed essential tasks while detained at the Center, such as doing the laundry, preparing and serving food and cleaning the facility. This work included cooking and serving three meals a day, scrubbing showers and toilets, cleaning the walk-in oven, and buffing and waxing the floors in the middle of the night.
This concludes the final phase of the three-week trial in Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s lawsuit against GEO.
In the first phase of the trial, a jury unanimously found GEO liable for violating Washington’s Minimum Wage Act. Consequently, GEO must now pay all its workers at least Washington’s minimum wage. Washington’s current minimum wage is $13.69 per hour.
In the second phase, the same jury awarded $17.3 million to more than 10,000 individuals detained at the Northwest ICE Processing Center to compensate them for back wages owed.
“This is a landmark victory for workers’ rights and basic human dignity,” Ferguson said.
Washington is the first state to sue a for-profit detention center for failure to pay minimum wage and for unjust enrichment. Ferguson filed the lawsuit against GEO in September 2017, alleging that GEO’s practice violates Washington law by paying workers less than the minimum wage, and that GEO unjustly enriched itself by doing so. Assistant Attorneys General Marsha Chien, Andrea Brenneke, and Lane Polozola, Investigator Alma Poletti, and Legal Assistant Caiti Hall of the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division led the case for the Attorney General’s Office.
The class of workers who recovered those back wages are represented by a private law firm, Schroeter Goldmark & Bender of Seattle.
Today Judge Bryan found that GEO enriched itself by its unfair and unjust practice. The court ordered GEO to surrender $5,950,430 of the gains it realized from this unlawful practice, which GEO engaged in from 2005 to today.
Unjust enrichment is the increased value to GEO’s business generated from its unfair labor practices. For example, by pocketing the wages it didn’t pay over the years, GEO has had the benefit of that money for itself to invest in its business and pay its shareholders.
GEO used immigrant detainee labor to perform virtually all non-security functions at Tacoma’s Northwest ICE Processing Center, formerly known as the Northwest Detention Center. Since at least 2005, GEO has paid thousands of detainee workers each year $1 per day or, in some instances, extra food for labor that is necessary to keep the facility operational.
A class of more than 10,000 individuals who provided operational labor to the detention center for $1 per day also sued GEO for its labor practices, represented by Schroeter Goldmark & Bender attorneys Jamal Whitehead and Adam Berger, along with partners. That private class action lawsuit was consolidated with Ferguson’s lawsuit for trial.
Many of the detained immigrants, including lead class plaintiff Goodluck Nwauzor, were held at the facility while waiting on decisions in their immigration court cases. Nwauzor – a Nigerian-born asylum seeker – was granted asylum status in 2017 and lawful permanent residency after an eight-month detainment during which he worked for just $1 per day cleaning showers.
GEO’s practice also impacted employment opportunities for workers in the community.
The Northwest ICE Processing Center and The GEO Group
Located on Tacoma’s Tideflats, the Northwest ICE Processing Center is the fourth-largest immigration detention center in the country. People are held at the facility while undergoing proceedings to determine their immigration status. GEO’s Northwest ICE Processing Center has the capacity to house up to 1,575 immigrant detainees.
The Tacoma detention center has faced controversies, including multiple hunger strikes by detainees over the dollar a day practice, living conditions, access to medical care and other problems at the facility. Recently, a group of women went on hunger strike to protest the dangerous conditions they faced while detained at the Center during the coronavirus pandemic, including overcrowding, a lack of access to medical care and basic necessities like soap.
GEO has owned and operated the facility since 2005. The Florida-based company has been in partnership with ICE since the 1980s, and in 2015, ICE renewed GEO’s contract for the facility through 2025. At the time the contract was renewed, GEO projected the Tacoma detention center would bring in $57 million in revenue every year at full capacity.
Ferguson created the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division in 2015 to protect the rights of all Washington residents by enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Ferguson named the division for Wing Luke, who served as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Washington in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He went on to become the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council and the first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest.