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Detainees who earned just $1 a day are owed $17 million in back pay, a jury says

A detainee worker moves a cart of trays containing chicken fajita meals during a 2019 media tour of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Tacoma, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A detainee worker moves a cart of trays containing chicken fajita meals during a 2019 media tour of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Tacoma, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A federal jury in Tacoma, Wash., says the GEO Group, which owns and runs a large detention center for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, owes former detainees $17.3 million in back pay for tasks such as cleaning and cooking meals.

The Florida-based for-profit prison company paid detainees $1 a day for such work, a practice the jury determined earlier this week is a violation of the state's minimum wage law. On Friday, they announced how much back pay was owed.

"This was about fair wages for work," says Adam Berger, an attorney with Schroeter Goldmark & Bender, which brought a class action on behalf of former detainees. "These detained immigrants are just emblematic of other workers in this economy who are in exploitive labor situations."

One former detainee who joined the suit is Nigerian-born Goodluck Nwauzor. He says he was detained at the Tacoma facility for eight months, starting in 2016, as he waited for his asylum claim to be processed. During that time he cleaned showers for a dollar a day. He says the GEO Group didn't force people to do such work, but he saw little choice.

"You have to do it, to get the money to get the stuff you need, or also make a call to your friends and family members," Nwauzor told NPR on Friday. "It's unfair. Because the amount of the job, or the kind of job we do, is beyond what they were paying us."

The class action was consolidated with a separate lawsuit brought by the state of Washington, which accused the GEO Group of violating state labor law and enriching itself unjustly.

The GEO Group argued that the detainees were not employees under Washington law, and that the state itself pays less than minimum wage to prisoners in its corrections facilities. The state minimum wage law exempts people living in "state, county or municipal" detention facilities. The Tacoma site is federal, and owned by a private company.

The company made $18.6 million in profits from the Tacoma detention center in 2018, and it acknowledged in a previous trial that it could have paid detainees more.

The company did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

The jury awarded the former detainees $17.3 million in back pay on Friday evening. It's still up to U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan to determine how much money the company must pay the state on its claim of unjust enrichment.

Berger says about 10,000 former detainees are eligible to share the back pay.

"We're going to have a big job ahead of us, locating all of these folks to try to give them the money that they've earned," he says. "And quite frankly, some of them we might not be able to find."

He says attorneys will petition the court separately for their fees.

Nwauzor, who was one of the lead plaintiffs in the class action, received asylum in 2017, and now lives in suburban Seattle.

"I have a job," he says, "with benefits."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.