Washington minimum wage law to apply to illegal immigrants

 December 26, 2023

The Washington Supreme Court has determined that the state's minimum wage law applies to immigrant detainees engaged in work within the state for private prison operator GEO Group Inc.

The court's unanimous decision, issued on Thursday, clarifies that the state's broad definition of "employee" is pivotal in determining coverage.

The details

The court emphasized the need to interpret exemptions narrowly, applying them only to situations that align "plainly and unmistakably with the terms and spirit of the legislation."

In this context, an exemption for residents, inmates, or patients of a state, county, or municipal institution does not extend to detention centers operated by private companies.

The court ruled that awarding damages to the class of immigrant detainees does not preclude Washington state from pursuing a claim for unjust enrichment.

The case

The case reached the Washington Supreme Court after the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sought clarification in March.

The Ninth Circuit questioned whether immigrants held in GEO Group detention centers should be considered "employees" under the state's minimum wage law.

In 2021, a federal jury awarded detainees $23.2 million in a lawsuit challenging the practice of paying them $1 per day for their work in GEO Group facilities.

The appeal

GEO Group is contesting the verdict, contending that its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security mandates the $1 a day wage rate.

Washington state's minimum wage stands at $14.49 per hour, the highest outside of the District of Columbia.

The Ninth Circuit sought the opinion of the Washington Supreme Court, acknowledging that the case's resolution could significantly impact how the federal government contracts with private detention facilities in the state.

The Washington Supreme Court's decision underscores the broader implications of labor practices within private detention facilities. The court's interpretation of the state's minimum wage law in the context of immigrant detainees challenges the prevailing compensation norms within such facilities.

The case has implications not only for the detainees seeking fair compensation for their labor but also for the broader landscape of private prison operators and their contractual relationships with federal authorities. The court's determination that the exemption for residents, inmates, or patients of public institutions doesn't extend to private detention centers sets a precedent that could influence labor practices and contractual agreements in similar settings.

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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