Minimum wage ruling goes in part against firm that runs Tacoma’s immigrant detention center

The company that runs the federal immigration detention center in Tacoma lost an argument this week in a lawsuit about the wages it pays detainees, the state attorney general said.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued The GEO Group in 2017, alleging that the for-profit company was violating the state’s minimum wage law by paying detainees $1 or less a day for jobs such as cleaning and preparing food.

Minimum wage in Washington state is $12.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan issued an order in the case Tuesday.

“The court rejected GEO’s argument that federal law preempts Washington state’s minimum wage law,” Ferguson said in a statement. “GEO cannot avoid accountability by hiding behind its contract with ICE. Today’s ruling means GEO can no longer argue that federal law prevents it from complying with Washington law.

“I look forward to ensuring this multi-billion dollar corporation complies with Washington law and either pays detainees minimum wage or hires workers from the community to perform the non-security functions at the Northwest Detention Center.”

The GEO Group owns and operates the 1,575-bed Northwest Detention Center on the Tacoma Tideflats. The company said this week’s order on summary judgment leaves disputed issues for trial.

“We believe our arguments will ultimately be successful,” GEO spokesman Pablo Paez said in a statement Wednesday. “The voluntary work program and its compensation have been part of the federal government’s national detention standards for decades under administrations of both parties.

“We will continue our vigorous defense of this lawsuit and look forward to presenting our case in court.”

Alexis Krell covers local, state and federal court cases that affect Pierce County. She started covering courts in 2016. Before that she wrote about crime and breaking news for almost four years as The News Tribune’s night reporter.