By Gabriel Thompson / Capital & Main
In the fall of 2021, soon after arriving at the Golden State Annex, a private immigration detention center in the city of McFarland, Alejandro became a “housing porter.” For $1 a day, he and other detainees swept and mopped the dorm rooms, bathrooms and showers, emptied the trash and wiped down tables at the center, operated by the for-profit company Geo Group.
On the outside, Alejandro had worked as a janitor and thus was familiar with basic safety protocols — none of which, he said, were followed by Geo Group. “There was no training or demonstrations,” he said, speaking on the phone from inside the detention center. (Because Alejandro fears retaliation, Capital & Main is not using his real name.) The housing porters frequently ran out of personal protective equipment like rubber boots and gloves. When he asked for information about the chemicals they were using, he said that staff told him that they didn’t even know themselves. His requests for an eye wash station were rebuffed. Complaints about black mold growing in the shower, he said, also went nowhere.
Last May, three advocacy organizations — the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, Immigrant Defense Advocates and Worksafe — filed a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health on behalf of Alejandro and six other detainees at Golden State Annex, alleging numerous health and safety violations. In the first case of its kind, Cal/OSHA cited Geo Group in December for six violations, including the failure to provide information and training on hazardous chemicals or provide emergency eyewash stations for workers. The gravest violation, resulting in a fine of $101,250, was for Geo Group’s lack of a plan to control aerosol transmissible diseases like COVID-19. (At Golden State Annex, there have been 84 confirmed positive COVID cases to date.)
“They found that this violation was both willful and serious,” said Karín Umfrey of WorkSafe. For Cal/OSHA, a willful violation means that an employer knew about the hazard and did not correct it; a serious violation occurs when the hazard creates a “realistic possibility” that death or serious harm could result. A spokesperson for GEO Group, which is appealing the violations, said that the company “categorically and fully denies these baseless allegations.” But it would not comment on specific violations or allegations from detainees while the appeal is pending.
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The citations grow out of an effort by immigrant advocates to demand more robust state oversight of private for-profit detention centers. Frequently, private companies like Geo Group and CoreCivic partner with a local entity, such as a county. But in recent years, California has severed its contracts with private detention centers. In response, detention companies signed contracts directly with the federal government, bypassing local oversight.
Then came COVID-19 and a skyrocketing number of cases within detention centers, which presented a legal quandary. “California has a ton of statutes written with respect to public health that refer to local detention facilities,” said Hamid Yazdan Panah of Immigrant Defense Advocates. “That doesn’t capture these facilities, which are privately operated without a local partner.”
Panah said that this legal gray area made state agencies like the California Department of Public Health and Cal/OSHA hesitant to intervene to protect immigrant detainees. “When we reached out to state and public health authorities, they would say it’s a federal facility — when in fact it’s a private facility with a contract that says it has to abide by local public health orders,” he said. He pointed to an email exchange in May 2020 between anepidemiologist at San Diego County and the assistant warden of Otay Mesa Detention Center, which was experiencing a massive COVID-19 outbreak during which the first immigrant detainee had died from the virus. The epidemiologist urged the facility to follow state public health guidelines and test employees to mitigate the spread of the disease. The assistant warden fired off a one-line answer: “Doc — Just so we’re clear — at this point we have no intention to mass test our staff.”
“It was this super flippant, ‘You don’t have jurisdiction over me’ type of statement,” said Panah.
The question of jurisdiction compelled Panah’s group and others to sponsor a new bill in the California State Assembly, AB263, which explicitly required private detention centers to comply with all local and state public health orders and Cal/OSHA regulations; it was passed in 2021. Advocates cited this new law when filing the Cal/OSHA complaint, which resulted in the first citations issued by the agency for hazards faced by detainee workers.
The citations are an acknowledgment by Cal/OSHA that the agency considers the detainees to be workers. And as workers, advocates and immigrants argue, detainees should not only be protected by workplace safety rules but also receive the minimum wage instead of $1 a day for eight hour shifts. (California law allows prisoners to work without minimum wage protections, but immigrant detention is classified as civil, not criminal.) In Washington state, a federal jury in 2021 ordered GEO Group to pay $17.3 million in back pay to detained workers, finding that the $1 a day wage violated the state’s minimum wage requirements. GEO Group has appealed the decision but faces a similar federal lawsuit in California, brought by groups that include the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, which helped detainees file the Cal/OSHA complaint. If the lawsuit in California is successful, a detained worker would be owed $15.50 an hour, earning $124 for an eight-hour shift instead of a single dollar.
At Golden State Annex, Alejandro said that he and about two dozen other detainees have been on strike since June in protest of the low wages and unsafe workplace conditions. “We wouldn’t be treated this way if we were normal workers outside,” he said. “We’re doing the work for the company. All we ask for is compensation and to be safe.”