California regulators levied $104,510 in fines against the private prison operator GEO Group last month after detained immigrant workers at the Golden State Annex in central California complained about unsafe conditions, including a lack of protective equipment and proper training, while cleaning the facility for $1 per day.
The investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as CAL/OSHA, found six violations of state code by the company, which has appealed. The agency’s recognition of the detainees as workers could pave the way for future labor rights fights at other detention centers in the state.
GEO Group spokesman Christopher Ferreira declined to comment on the allegations, citing the pending appeal.
“GEO is proud of its extraordinary record in taking unprecedented measures to protect detainees and staff during the pandemic,” Ferreira wrote in a statement.
The complaint was filed by Immigrant Defense Advocates and the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice on behalf of several detainees whose names were kept confidential. They alleged safety violations including failures by the facility administrators to provide personal protective equipment, maintain sanitary work spaces, prevent the spread of COVID-19 and safeguard against workplace-related illnesses and injuries.
Detainees alleged that they routinely wiped black mold off shower walls at the facility, saw black dust spew from the air vents and used cleaning solutions that lacked instructions, leaving them wondering whether they were being exposed to high concentrations of chemicals. Complaints were ignored, according to the complaint, and the hazards went unaddressed.
Florida-based GEO Group, one of the country’s largest for-profit prison companies, manages 15 detention facilities on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE declined to comment on the fines levied by CAL/OSHA.
One of the complainants, who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said he worked a cleaning job at the facility for about two months before the detainees in seven of the eight dormitories collectively decided to stop working early last year.
Eight workers in each dorm had staffed eight-hour shifts, he said. They would clean the entire dorm — restrooms, day room and living quarters — every morning and evening, with additional spot cleaning as needed.
The complainant had been transferred to the Golden State Annex from a state prison, where he said he worked for 39 cents an hour — three times what GEO Group paid him per shift, according to the complaint. Tablet video calls to loved ones add up quickly at 5 cents per minute, he noted.
“They made it seem like they were doing us a favor by giving us a job,” he said in a phone interview from the facility.
The complainant said workers shared a single pair of rubber boots and one bottle of floor cleaner, glass cleaner and disinfectant. When those bottles were in use by others, he was told to clean with shampoo. He said cleaning the showers without proper footwear gave him a fungal infection.
He said detained workers asked the facility officials to raise their pay, but were told that GEO Group policy doesn’t allow them to pay more than $1 a day. Detainees in one dorm have continued in the voluntary work program, he said, and GEO Group hired four people to clean the seven other dorms.
In 2021, a federal jury in Tacoma, Wash., found that GEO Group’s $1-a-day pay violated the state’s minimum wage law and ordered the company to provide former detainees $17.3 million in back pay. GEO Group argued to an appeals court that the recent decision striking down California’s ban on private immigrant detention centers also prevents Washington from requiring the company to pay detained workers minimum wage because it would constitute state interference in federal operations, Reuters reported.
Also in 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency found that GEO Group violated federal law by misusing a chemical disinfectant that caused detainees to experience nosebleeds, burning eyes and nausea.
In response to the complaint, CAL/OSHA investigators interviewed detainees and inspected the Golden State Annex last year. On Dec. 15, the agency cited GEO Group for failing to provide unobstructed access to emergency eyewash equipment, and for failing to provide workers with effective information and training on hazardous materials.
The biggest fine levied against GEO Group was for failure to establish and maintain “effective written procedures to reduce employee risk of exposure to aerosol transmissible disease,” including COVID-19 — violations CAL/OSHA labeled “Willful-Serious.” GEO Group was also cited for repeatedly failing to provide records to investigators in a timely manner.
Lisa Knox, legal director of the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, said detainees recently complained to her about retaliation after guards removed extra items, including pillows, clothing and bedding, from the dorms. She sees the CAL/OSHA citations as a major victory for detainees.
“I do hope this empowers workers who are detained to be able to speak up and report health and safety violations,” she said.