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.