Trial to determine if GEO must pay detainees minimum wage

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2019, file photo, workers are shown in the kitchen of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Tacoma, Wash., during a media tour. After years of litigation and pandemic-related delays, jury selection is underway in a trial to determine whether GEO Group must pay minimum wage to detainees at its immigration detention center in Washington state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2019, file photo, workers are shown in the kitchen of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Tacoma, Wash., during a media tour. After years of litigation and pandemic-related delays, jury selection is underway in a trial to determine whether GEO Group must pay minimum wage to detainees at its immigration detention center in Washington state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

SEATTLE – After nearly four years of litigation and pandemic-related delays, a trial is underway to determine whether the GEO Group must pay minimum wage to detainees who perform cooking, cleaning and other tasks at its immigration detention center in Washington state.

Detainees are typically paid $1 per day when they work shifts in the Voluntary Work Program at the for-profit Northwest detention center in Tacoma. The state's minimum wage is now $13.69 per hour.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson and some detainees filed separate lawsuits against GEO in 2017, arguing that the company’s contract with the federal government requires it to follow state and local laws — including Washington’s Minimum Wage Act — and that GEO, one of the nation's largest private detention companies, unjustly profited by paying so little.

Tacoma-based U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan, who has rejected several attempts by GEO to dismiss the lawsuits, consolidated the cases for trial, which he is conducting via Zoom because of the pandemic. By mid-afternoon Tuesday, a jury of nine people had been chosen. Opening statements were expected Wednesday.

“These cases are not about whether the government’s contracting with private entities to operate detention facilities is a good or bad policy,” Bryan told potential jurors Tuesday morning. “These cases are also not about United States’ immigration policy or border issues.”

However, there are political undertones. In 2014, amid a hunger strike by detainees, immigrant rights activists tried to convince the governor's office and the state Department of Labor and Industries that detainees should be paid minimum wage for work performed there.

After reviewing the matter, Labor and Industry officials determined that Washington didn't have jurisdiction over the federal government's detainees for purposes of wage issues, according to public records obtained by GEO and filed in the case.

In 2017, amid a flurry of lawsuits over the new Trump administration's immigration policies, Ferguson reached a different conclusion, saying GEO was exploiting Washington residents.